Denver-Born Restaurants Dae Gee and Walter's 303 Expand to Mexico | Westword
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Two Denver-Born Restaurants Are Expanding South — Way South

Diners from Colorado visiting Puerto Vallarta may be surprised to see some familiar names in the popular tourist destination.
Puerto Mágico in Puerto Vallarta, which will soon be home to two Denver-born businesses.
Puerto Mágico in Puerto Vallarta, which will soon be home to two Denver-born businesses. Walter's 303
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Both Dae Gee Korean BBQ and Walter’s303 Pizzeria and Publik House have expansion plans in 2024, but they’re going beyond Colorado — all the way to the touristy beach town of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, colloquially known by locals as "PV."

Mike Kienast opened Walter’s303 at 1906 Pearl Street in 2010. That Uptown address is still its flagship location, and over the years it’s taken its “Always Funky, Never Dull” pizzeria and pub to Lowry, Littleton and Colorado Springs, as well.

In 2022, Kienast was approached by a longtime friend with an opportunity to open an outpost in Puerto Mágico, Puerto Vallarta’s massive cruise ship terminal and the buzzing disembarkation point for the droves of visitors arriving in town. “Puerto Vallarta is a fun, colorful and exciting city,” Kienast says of the opportunity.

This PV location will officially be called Walter’s322 (a reference to the local area code). The approximately 5,000-square-foot open-air floor space overlooking the port includes a large dining room and bar space, private party area, TVs and a gift shop.

While the menu at Walter's322 will include the classic pies that are familiar to diners in Colorado, Walter's will also work with its general manager and chef in Puerto Vallarta to “create new appetizers and entrees featuring local and regional ingredients and flavors,” Kienast notes. “We will also have seasonal menus to ensure the freshest ingredients from both land and sea” and “exemplify the relaxed, service-oriented feel that permeates PV.”

Walter's322 is the only location the brand currently has planned for Mexico, but “we always have our ear to the ground,” Kienast says.
click to enlarge plaza with colorful umbrellas hanging overhead
Puerto Mágico in Puerto Vallarta, which will soon be home to two Denver-born businesses.
Walter's 303
Joe Kim founded Dae Gee Korean BBQ in Denver in 2009, and in recent years, the brand has gone through a pronounced expansion phase across the Front Range and beyond. Last November, it also expanded into Puerto Vallarta with a location in a breezy, two-story building with a street-level patio and an upstairs barbecue area situated in the historic Zona Romántica neighborhood, a couple of blocks from the boardwalk-lined beach.

Kim says that the heavy foot traffic from tourists in the area has provided a solid customer base in its first few months, but that sustainable success for Dae Gee lies in creating bonds with locals. “A big component is to focus on the local market, making sure the local community knows what it is and teaching them about Korean food,” he explains.

The opportunity to open a new franchise in Puerto Vallarta originally presented itself as a sprawling 4,300-square-foot space, also located inside Puerto Mágico, which is slated to open this summer.

Kim attributes Dae Gee’s warm reception in PV thus far — and his projected success with Korean barbecue in this country — to what he sees as encouraging overlaps in the culinary elements between Korean and Mexican cooking, such as an abundance of grilled meats and seafood; complex, spice-driven salsas; and a dedication to fresh ingredients. He also cites the simple, universal appeal of friends and family gathering over tasty food in a comfy setting.

“It’s been welcomed really well. It’s a totally different experience than what the culture is used to,” Kim says. “The main thing is to create a great atmosphere and a great community and have a good time with family. I think those are the key components that really fit down there.”
click to enlarge a man with a pink mohawk posting in a black t shirt
Dae Gee founder Joe Kim.
Dae Gee
Dae Gee has gained success with a menu anchored by its unlimited barbecue offering, which includes meats cooked by guests on a tabletop skillet. Other menu items include classic home-style Korean renditions of beef broth noodle bowls, dumplings, fish cakes, various kimchis, kimchi pancakes, marinated shrimp and scallops, and bee beem bhop — steamed rice bowls topped with ingredients such as shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, radish, seaweed and sesame oil.

Kim sees each Dae Gee location opening as a new space to share his passion for Korean food, to collaborate with a new group of staff members, and to connect with customers from an entirely new city. He enjoys the idea of bringing a fresh concept to a place that previously didn’t have such options available.

Beyond its five Colorado locations (in Aurora, Westminster, Fort Collins and two in Denver), Dae Gee opened a Fort Wayne, Indiana, outpost in November. In 2024, it has openings planned in Boston, New Jersey and Amarillo, Texas.

“My hope is to bring cross-collaboration between cultures and communities — to collaborate and try each other’s food,” Kim says. “I always have an eighty/twenty rule: 80 percent of the business, marketing, branding is focused on what we've created in the States, and then 20 percent is to give them room for getting creative with different drinks, bar items, food items.”

With the Puerto Vallarta locations, Kim says he is excited to explore those cross-cultural ideas for the menu to create fusion items that will only be available in PV. He says he’s contemplating such ideas as local birria ramen, kimchi ramen and Korean twists on tacos.
click to enlarge two people holding plates of kimchi
Uriel Sosa Delta (right), head chef of Dae Gee in Puerto Vallarta, with Nam Hee Kim, aka Mama Kim.
Dae Gee
In 2021, Kim told Westword that he had zero restaurant or professional cooking experience before launching Dae Gee, but what he did have was a passion for sharing Korean culture. “It’s not a big country,” he notes. “There are fifty million-plus people packed into that little peninsula, and yet they are a powerhouse in the Asian continent, and that tells me there's so much vision coming out of there.”

Kim’s Korean mother-in-law, Nam Hee Kim, who is affectionately known as Mama Kim, has always been the driving culinary force at Dae Gee. It is her traditional recipes that fill the menu, and as Dae Gee opens new locations, she is on site to personally train the staff.

Kim says that he and Mama Kim plan to visit the Puerto Vallarta locations every two or three months to check in and ensure that the food is consistent with their standards. “We don’t want to be an absentee franchise; we want to be hands-on. We want them to be successful,” he notes.

Dae Gee’s franchising phase was something Kim has had aspirations to do for years, and after the pandemic eased up, he put his plans into action and has kept that momentum going. “We’ve grown quite a bit, and right now we’re at the moment of exponential growth, which is great,” he says. “[We’ve been] planting a lot of seeds and investing, and slowly it's picking up and the word is catching on. It’s something new. No one has done it or is doing it in that particular area, and so that's good to see all those things happening.”

With each new Dae Gee opening, Kim sees more exciting opportunities opening, as well. “One by one we learn it and we grow,” he concludes. “Do it faster, do it better, and see where it takes us.”

For more information on Walter’s303, visit walters303.com, or walters322.com for updates on the Puerto Vallarta location. For more information on Dae Gee, visit daegee.com.
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