The wok has been fired up and the kitchen is ready to go for next Monday's highly anticipated opening of Cho77, chef and restaurateur Lon Symensma's tribute to Southeast Asian street food located in a long and narrow space on South Broadway.
Roaming across Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia (with side trips to China, Japan and the Philippines thrown in for good measure), Cho77's menu presents fluent translations of traditional dishes without burdening diners with unfamiliar names or ingredients. And rather than becoming bogged down in slavish mimicry, Cho77's kitchen pokes fun at foodie pretense by stuffing buffalo chicken and blue cheese into bao buns and slyly undermining ramen fanaticism by presenting the sole Japanese-inspired noodle bowl on the menu with a thoroughly American bacon, egg and cheese motif. Although intended as a playful joke aimed at early reports that Cho77 would be a ramen house, Symensma follows through with miso bacon, poached eggs and Parmesan broth.
Divided into sections of sharable plates and decidedly un-sharable noodle soups and wok dishes, the menu features both dainty sesame cups holding bite-sized portions of scallop ceviche at one end and a whole, roasted pig knuckle — intended for parties of three or more— with lettuce cup trappings (Asian slaw and Korean chili sauce) on the other. The kitchen confits whole chickens and uses the dark meat and skin in the bao buns and white meat in the Thai coconut curry, which chef de cuisine Ryan Gorby explains is an interpretation of a northern Thai and Burmese dish called khao soi, which he encountered at almost every food market on a fact-finding trip through Thailand.
A short list of "Happy Ending" desserts includes chocolate sticky rice pudding and Vietnamese coffee "affogato," while beverages draw from Southeast Asian tradition in the form of sweet pulled tea, Trung Nguyen brand Vietnamese coffee and boba tea. House cocktails are given Asian twists with tamarind, coconut, charred pineapple and lychee.
Among Symensma's biggest influences for the style and sensibilities of Cho77 is chef and cookbook author Robert Danhi, one of his former instructors at the Culinary Institute of America and now a close friend. Danhi's book, Southeast Asian Flavors, was a James Beard finalist for international cookbooks and Danhi was just in Cho77's kitchen for five days, helping dial in flavors and cooking techniques.
Cho77's dining room is decked out in art and trinkets gathered during Symensma and Gorby's tour of Southeast Asia last fall. They also shipped home a bicycle food cart (which they bought from a street vendor) that's now mounted above the front door of the restaurant. Other touches include bathroom sinks made from steel woks, light strands similar to those above Vietnamese food markets and graffitied phrases on the walls in Thai and Vietnamese, one of which encourages guests to toast with "Mot hai ba, yo!" — Vietnamese for "One, two, three, cheers!"
Cho77 will be open daily from 4 p.m. beginning Monday, March 30, with closing hours yet to be determined. Later summer hours are almost a certainty on weekends, with the possibility of takeout service from the window counter at the front of the restaurant.