When chef-owner Lon Symensma traveled throughout Southeast Asia prior to opening Cho77, which I review this week, he was gathering more than inspiration for the street foods that would distinguish this restaurant from its sister restaurant, ChoLon. He was also gathering items to give the restaurant its authentic feel. “We wanted to take a part of the world and bring it back to Denver and drop it into our restaurant,” says Symensma, who shipped back more than two crates of art, cooking tools and other items.
In Malaysia, he found two-tier stainless-steel tiffins, with one compartment to hold the Thai coconut curry soup and the other the crispy noodles to crumble into it. In Thailand he found two kinds of lotus blossom molds, one for the elegant cookie served with the coconut-green tea milkshake, and another for the scallop ceviche’s savory shell. Artwork was found in a village in central Vietnam; chopstick holders came from southern Vietnam.
Many other items were shipped back from Saigon, including the street-food cart perched above the door, green melamine serving plates for the samosas, and yokes carried by street vendors, filled here with plants and hung from the ceiling. Sometimes Symensma found what he was looking for, even when he wasn’t looking for it. “We walked by this store and said, ‘That would make an amazing tray for our dumplings,’” recalls Symensma. The shallow, stainless-steel trays, purchased from a medical supply company, now cradle the red chili dumplings.
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Not everything required a crate and a passport. Duck buns arrive in what looks like a letter holder, with slots to keep the tender buns from unfolding. These were built by chef de cuisine/partner Ryan Gorby’s family, with wood from their property in West Virginia. Even Symensma’s father got in on the act, crafting the wooden condiment holders out of wood from a family barn in Indiana.
“It took a lot of work to pull this off,” Symensma admits, but it was worth it, since everything together combines to give the restaurant the feel he was after: “the motion of the streets and the street-food scene."