Even the co-owner of Boulder's best Chinese restaurant knows his limitations. "I knew that I had to come clean with a secret: I'm not Italian," quips Edwin Zoe, who, along with his mother, owns Zoe Ma Ma, a stellar Chinese restaurant in downtown Boulder and, up until quite recently, Radda Trattoria, a popular Italian restaurant in north Boulder, which Zoe assumed ownership of in December of 2012, after the original owner, Matt Jansen, sold the space. Last month, Zoe closed Radda, after realizing, he admits, that "preserving an Italian legacy" wasn't in his best interest.
Born in Taiwan, Zoe moved to the States when he was just nine and then to Boulder in the early '80s to attend the University of Colorado. In 2010, he and his mother opened Zoe Ma Ma, and later this summer, in July, the duo will open a second Zoe Ma Ma in the One Union Station Building, just adjacent to the revitalized Union Station. But while Zoe Ma Ma is steeped in what he calls the "delicious home cooking" of his youth, Ella, the restaurant that he opened yesterday in Radda's old space, is a homage to America, specifically the American diner, or, as Zoe describes it, an American "fine diner."
The space, which includes a partially-open kitchen; a center bar, above which are floating totems hand-carved by Jerry Wingren, a Boulder sculpture artist; custom-made butcher-block tables; and soon, a grow wall flush with fresh herbs, is classier than your normal diner, but Zoe kept it purposefully simple, unlike the voice of the woman for whom the restaurant is named.
Zoe chose the name Ella, he says, because of his love for jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald. "When I was a young man, one of my favorite singers was Ella Fitzgerald," says Zoe, who would later name his dog Ella, too. And while he tried to name his daughter Ella, his wife balked. "Apparently, giving your daughter the same name as the dog is frowned upon around here," he jokes, "but I really like the simplicity of the name and the connections and associations I have with it, so I named the diner Ella."
And the name, he says, is equally indicative of what he's come to love about the diners in the United States, namely their absence of pretense and dedication to recreating home cooking. "There was a period in my life when I was really into complex food, but that's changed," says Zoe. "Now I'm into simple food that tastes great, and I needed to do something that reflects my food sensibilities and tells a story, but I wanted to do it in a way that would improve upon the ingredients and techniques, hence a fine diner," he explains.
"I don't want to just do mashed potatoes; I want to do the best mashed potatoes, the best meatloaf and the best hash browns," stresses Zoe. And when it came to developing the menu, he adds, "I let my stomach drive me, so all the dishes that are on the menu are things that speak to me -- things that I like to eat."
His menu, which begins with breakfast (think skillets, french toast, chicken-fried steak, eggs Benedict and huevos rancheros sheeted with an absolutely killer green chile), traverses through lunch (burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, fish and chips, matzo ball soup and chicken paprikash) and commences with a dinner board devoted to all of that, plus an herb-crusted prime rib, is a resolute salute to America's melting pot. And his kitchen staff, including his lead line cook, who's from Mexico and his mother-in-law, who hails from Hungary -- and makes the chicken paprikash, matzo ball soup and Hungarian cream cake -- firmly represents Zoe's commitment to offering a "confluence of different cultures," just like the kind of bliss you expect from a neighborhood diner that also trumpets lasagna, although you might not expect wild boar lasagna, which you will find here. And his chicken-fried steak is made with hanger steak rather than the ubiquitous top round. And who can resist bacon popovers, creamed spinach and Brussels sprouts pelted with crushed bits of bacon? Bliss.
Restaurants, says Zoe, "are a form of my expression, and the food tells people about myself, and it speaks personally to me as an American." And while he admits that at one point in his career, he subscribed to the notion of "before you can create, you have to emulate and then replicate," he's no longer a hostage to that mantra. "I'm really confident in who I am now, and I don't have to emulate any more," he says.
Ella, which also pours Colorado-centric beers and American-focused wines, along with infused whiskeys and vodkas, is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m daily.
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Here's a sneak peek at the space and the food.