Natascha Hess has been on a trajectory to bring her cooking — a mix of modern Asian flair and traditional Chinese recipes she learned while living with a family in Beijing for a year — to a larger audience ever since she launched the Ginger Pig food truck in Boulder in 2016. The deep-blue truck emanating aromas of char siu pork, Vietnamese rice bowls and spicy Sichuan-style fried chicken was a regular at the Rayback Collective before moving to Isabelle Farm in Lafayette for a season and then making a splash with a counter at Rosetta Hall when it opened in downtown Boulder last fall.
And now Hess is ready to open a solo restaurant in Denver: The Ginger Pig is taking over the space at 4262 Lowell Boulevard, which was recently vacated by Scratch Burrito & Happy Tap after a seven-year run there. "Our goal has always been to get to this point," the chef says of the brick-and-mortar plans, "but we didn't think we'd get here this soon."
But because of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting restaurant shutdown that has permanently closed many restaurants, lease opportunities are out there for those willing to take a chance. "I started looking about seven weeks ago," Hess notes. "Originally I imagined I'd be in a strip mall somewhere, so finding a standalone space is exciting. It's hard to be too excited about opening a restaurant during COVID, though, and I'm really sensitive toward people who are having a tough time staying open right now."
The new restaurant owner says that the 2,000-square-foot space is mostly turnkey, but she's working with a design team to convert the dining room into something more fitting for her concept, so she's aiming for a September or October opening. In the meantime, she's planning to set up the original Ginger Pig truck in the parking lot as soon as she can get licensed in Denver (her current food truck license only covers Boulder County). "Having the truck in front of the restaurant will be fun for our team and for the community," Hess explains, adding that she'll be focusing on online ordering and payment to make grabbing food from the truck as safe and easy as possible.
And once the restaurant opens, takeout and delivery will continue to be a big part of the business, since, as the chef points out, many of her dishes travel well and it will be some time before dining rooms will be able to return to higher capacity. Plans for an expanded patio are also in the works.
"We have a lot of dishes that we love that we want to showcase, and I'm looking forward to trying more new things," she adds.
So along with the top-selling char siu pork, the street-food Bangkok Balls (deep-fried red curry rice balls) and the Chinese smashed cucumber salad, there will be more fish, Sichuan-style eggplant (which Hess has been working on for five years to get it perfect for the menu), and even Sunday brunch with Japanese soufflé pancakes, karaage and waffles, Shibuya honey toast and different styles of congee.
Since this will be the first full-scale restaurant for the Ginger Pig, Hess says she's relying on some industry pros to help her with a bar and cocktail program, as well as other aspects of running a business beyond just cooking good food. "The food hall made me a better chef but a worse entrepreneur, so I'm looking forward to being an entrepreneur again and coming up with creative ideas for us and the community. It's really about the location being good, the food being good and the team being good. It felt like everything came together at the right time."
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