Chef Lon Symensma has his bases covered when it comes to Southeast Asian cuisine. ChoLon Modern Asian has been going strong on the 16th Street Mall since 2010, serving high-flying interpretations of classic dishes gleaned while traveling and working abroad and in New York City. Next came Cho77, which captures the vibrant street flavors of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and other ports of call in a hip, energetic setting somewhere between a noodle bar and a market stall. And on Wednesday, July 26, Symensma will launch Kaya Kitchen, a fast-casual counter inside Avanti Food & Beverage that draws further from the street-food lexicon in both traditional and modern presentations.
"I'd been kicking around the idea of a quick-service Southeast Asian place for a while," the chef explains, but his ties with Avanti go back several years. "I almost opened a full restaurant here," he adds, noting that he had worked with Avanti co-owner Rob Hahn before the food-hall concept was hatched.
Symensma's initial idea never worked out, and Avanti became what it is today, but he kept in touch with Hahn and his partners and eventually came up with Kaya. "It's a fun way to keep up my relationship with these guys," he says.
Kaya takes its name from the savory-sweet coconut jam served on grilled toast in the street stalls and cafes of Singapore. One of ChoLon's most recognizable small plates is an "egg cloud" served with kaya toast, but at the new fast-casual spot, the dish is kept basic, with a couple of poached eggs and a packet of soy sauce alongside the bread and jam, just as it's done in Singapore.
Kaya's menu veers from there to Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, with banh mi sandwiches (including a breakfast version with eggs and Chinese sausage that will be part of Avanti's new weekend brunch program); beef pho packed with brisket, meatballs and tendon; and deep-fried wings done up in a Vietnamese caramel sauce similar to the sticky coating that earned our Best Chicken Wings award in 2016. Shrimp summer rolls, pork dumplings, a green-papaya salad and a rice noodle bowl loaded with your choice of beef, chicken, tofu or shrimp round out the choices.
There will also be changes as produce comes in and out of season; right now there's Cambodian-style corn on the cob slathered in sriracha cream and lime, but fall will bring new specials from the minds of Symensma and right-hand man Ryan Gorby, who oversees Cho77.
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Whether sticking with tradition or experimenting with modernist culinary techniques, Symensma and Gorby are sticklers for details. For the opening, for example, the bread for the banh mi baguettes will be sourced from a Vietnamese bakery in southwest Denver, but they're currently working with Grateful Bread Co. to come up with the perfect formula. Rice flour is part of what makes a banh mi baguette light, crusty and crumbly in just the right way, so Grateful Bread is milling rice in-house to add to the dough.
Kaya Kitchen will be open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.