"There's a little bit of trauma," says Edwin Zoe, holding back tears. He's talking about Chimera, the full-service restaurant he opened in Boulder in 2018 that had to make some big pivots to stay open through the pandemic, including becoming a ramen-focused spot. "I want to look forward to something so we can put the past couple of years behind us."
That something: Dragonfly Noodle, which Chimera will transform into by the end of March. Zoe is also bringing the concept to Denver, to a space on the 16th Street Mall at Market Street that he's hoping to open in May.
The new projects come on the heels of an exciting honor for Zoe: He was recently named a semi-finalist
in the Best Restaurateur category for the 2022 James Beard Awards. "I thought for a moment, 'Someone's playing a joke,'" he recalls of the morning he got the news through a friend's text message. "Complete surprise — I'm incredibly honored, but I'm just scratching my head saying, 'How in the heck did my name get on there?'"
But to those in the know, the news was no shock. Zoe has been a staple in the Front Range dining scene since he opened the fast-casual Zoe Ma Ma in Boulder in 2010. Before getting into restaurants, he'd started a successful software company, but there were two things he missed dearly: his mother, Anna, and her cooking. He'd long dreamed of opening a restaurant where his mom could share the authentic Chinese food she'd made for her family; when he was growing up, the family had owned a Chinese restaurant in the Midwest that served American Chinese dishes.
So after his father passed away, Zoe's mother made the move to Boulder, created a menu filled with the dishes she'd served her family for decades, and began putting in sixteen-hour days at a place that remains one of the best Chinese restaurants in the metro area.
In 2014, Zoe opened a second Zoe Ma Ma at Union Station in Denver, and he added Chimera four years later. Along the way, he's been a leader in rethinking the tipping model and creating equitable pay in restaurants — long before it became a COVID-era hot topic. He introduced a 15 percent service fee back in 2015, which is not directly tied to employee pay. Instead, he explains, his staff gets a dependable wage regardless of how busy the restaurant is. Guests can opt out of the fee and are not expected to add an additional tip. When customers leave extra in the form of cash, it's added to a donation jar. Each quarter, the staff votes on a nonprofit to be a beneficiary of the funds, a practice that employees have embraced.
Seafood pan-fried noodles are a favorite at Chimera.
While the service fee has been a success at his restaurants, the pandemic put a lot of strain on the restaurateur. "The past two years have been extraordinarily challenging not just for the industry, but for myself and my businesses," Zoe says. "As we emerge out of this, part of my process is to say, 'What does the future look like?'" That question led him to look at the opportunities that have come out of the pandemic — including an empty space on the mall that used to be a Garbanzo.
"I always felt like Larimer and the 16th Street Mall is the nexus of downtown Denver," Zoe explains. "So for me, the opportunity to do a project right here was really attractive. ... It's really important that we have businesses come back to downtown." Especially in an area of town that has become filled with mostly chains.
"The Dragonfly has always been one of the spirit animals I really admired, ever since I was a little kid," Zoe says of how the new concept was created. "Dragonflies also symbolize transformation, and I thought, 'That's perfect. ... The noodle part really has to do with my passion and obsession with noodles, from ramen-yas in Japan to Taiwan street-food stalls to Singapore street-food stalls. It is an incredible category of cuisine that I'm really passionate about, so I wanted to be able to do that and add a little bit of my own creativity."
Construction is now underway at the Dragonfly Noodle in Denver, where the walls are awash in a bright lemongrass hue. "There's a lightness about it and a freshness about it," Zoe says of the color choice, which is balanced by walnut accents. "There's something solid and foundational about walnut."
As the space comes together, so does Zoe's vision for an uncommon service model. Like a fast-casual, guests will enter the restaurant and proceed past a Japanese noodle-making machine toward a stand where orders will be placed. From there, customers will be led to their table, where the experience will be full-service. "Fasual," Zoe jokes.
Back to that noodle machine, though. At Chimera, noodles are made fresh every day — it was the first restaurant in Colorado to do so, and remains one of the only ones doing it. That won't change when it becomes Dragonfly. The machine in Denver will be a Yamato, one of the best noodle-making machines available in the world, which Zoe imported from Japan. "We affectionately call it Yama," he says.
The menu is still being finalized, but it will include some of the favorites from Chimera. While much of the menu will be set, it will also include some rotating items so that Zoe can get creative with different noodle dishes, like the ruffle-edged Taiwanese knife-cut noodles he's excited to introduce — which you can't find anywhere else in Denver.
There will also be a selection of gua bao stuffed with fillings like roast duck, smoked pork belly and panko eggplant. The restaurant will have a bar, too, serving Asian-inspired cocktails, along with sake and beer, to pair with the food.
Although downtown has struggled with the lack of office workers, the increase in homelessness and the shuttering of many businesses, an addition like Dragonfly is a hopeful sign. "Restaurateurs are, I think, by definition, optimists. Otherwise, we would not do anything at all," Zoe says, laughing. "So I am optimistic that we are going to come back."