One of Korea's hottest new food trends has arrived. Called K-dogs, rice dogs or the misnamed (since they're not made with cornmeal) Korean corn dogs, they're generally dipped in batter, rolled in a crunchy coating — panko breadcrumbs, flaked corn, puffed rice or even crumbled ramen noodles — and then deep-fried before being slathered in salty, sweet and spicy sauces. Some of the more outlandish versions even have big cubes of fried potatoes embedded in the batter, making the dog look like an edible caveman's club.
K-dogs had already made their way onto the menus of a couple of food trucks, but thanks to restaurateur Thuan La, you can now get the specialty at Mama's Noodle Cafe, his eatery at 4690 South Yosemite Street in Greenwood Village.
La hadn't planned on becoming a new restaurant owner, but the opportunity arose because he's friends with the owner of the location's previous tenant, Renzio's, who wanted to do something new and different. "I'm a restaurateur, but I'd hung my hat up for a while," La explains of his leap back into the field. "It's been a good twenty years since my last restaurant." In those intervening years, he'd gotten more involved in menu creation and food research and development to help other businesses come up with menu items.
When La opened Mama's in the transformed Renzio's on April 1, 2020 (at a time he realizes was incredibly difficult, since restaurants were closed to all but takeout and delivery), what he calls rice crunch dogs weren't on the menu. But he wanted to produce a quality product while keeping the price reasonable — Mama's is just around the corner from Cherry Creek High School — and started researching ingredients and techniques, staying away from gluten and pork in order to give a wider audience the opportunity to try something new. Ultimately, he turned to Hebrew National for an all-beef hot dog as the basis of his final recipe. "I tried a few different products but ended up going with a lower-sodium hot dog, because I didn't want the whole thing to be overwhelmingly salty," La notes.
It's a big dog, too — large enough to be skewered on a wooden chopstick instead of the skinnier skewers or flat sticks typically supporting standard corn dogs. From there, the dog is dipped in rice-flour batter and fried after it's rolled in puffed rice, which gives the whole thing a distinctive crunch.
Mama's crunch dogs are offered in three styles: Tokyo, Seoul and Saigon. The first comes topped with Japanese mayo, seven-spice and soy tare (a thick black sauce similar to teriyaki or okonomiyaki sauce); the second is loaded with finely chopped kimchi and the house "tangy honey sauce"; and the third boasts the bright flavors of pickled daikon and carrot and cilantro-jalapeño sauce, with a little zing from sweet chili sauce. They all burst with spicy, sweet, salty and tangy flavors, and have a good crunch that lasts even if you take your dog to go. And as sloppy as they sound, the crunch dogs are easy to eat; they're just sticky enough that the sauces and toppings adhere without becoming a drippy mess (though you might get some side-eye from other motorists if you attempt to eat one while driving).
Although rice crunch dogs have become a top seller lately, they're not the main attraction at Mama's Noodle Cafe. Pho and ramen are the stars; you can build your own pho bowl, and La is rightly proud of the traditional Japanese recipes for his ramen broths and toppings. On the drinks side, Vietnamese coffee, boba teas, fruit smoothies and shakes add to the pan-Asian range of flavors. La, a self-professed tea fanatic, says he hopes to add a small tea garden behind the restaurant once the weather warms up; in the meantime, go with the tea he already offers along with a range of single-serving cakes and other pastries from chef Emma Nemechek, who has worked for some of the city's top resorts and hotels.
Despite the proximity of the high school, La says that teenagers are only a small part of his overall business — especially since school schedules have been so unpredictable over the past few months. Dinner hours, though, have attracted a loyal following, including other chefs looking to try the unusual menu items.
Innovation comes in many forms, and as it turns out, even the humble state fair corn dog can find new life. Just hold the ketchup and mustard!
Mama's Noodle Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, offering counter service for takeout and limited in-house dining. Call 303-770-6833 for details, and find the restaurant's menu on a number of online platforms (including Yelp and Grubhub) for pick-up and delivery.
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