"Opening a restaurant is harder than getting a law degree," says Natascha Hess.
She should know: As of this week, Hess has done both. The former lawyer just opened the Ginger Pig at 4262 Lowell Boulevard, the brick-and-mortar incarnation of her food truck of the same name that debuted four years ago.
Hess signed a lease on the space just a few months ago, after Scratch Burrito & Happy Tap closed there, and is now serving Chinese cuisine and other Asian fare inspired by Hess's time spent living in China (where she learned to cook from her host mom) and traveling in Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. As they were at the food truck, which operated in Boulder County, many of the dishes are based on traditional recipes, but some are Hess's creations. So you'll find Sichuan-style spicy eggplant, Auntie Zhang's Chinese noodles and mushroom mapo tofu, along with fried chicken from three different origins (China, Japan and Korea), Thai chicken satay, Vietnamese wings and Hess's popular Bangkok rice balls.
The fried chicken can be ordered solo or as one of three chicken-and-beer combos for $18 each: Japanese karaage with Asai beer, Korean kkanpunggi with Hite beer, or Chinese la zi ji with Tsing Tao.
While the timing of the opening comes just as Denver is moving into tighter COVID-related restrictions (with 25 percent capacity for dining rooms and a 10 p.m. last call), Hess says that her food is designed to travel well, since many of the dishes evolved for food truck customers, so takeout business will be a big part of the program initially. She's also working on getting the food truck licensed in Denver to help with sales.
It's a shame that more people won't be able to see the interior of the Ginger Pig right away, as the evocative decor brings to mind Asian night markets and restaurants in narrow streets. A mural painted by Japanese artist JUURI depicts ginger blossoms and crested fireback birds on one wall, while a neon sign in Mandarin lights up the wall above the kitchen. Its characters read "Ni chi le ma?" or "Have you eaten?" in English. Hess says it's a common greeting in China and represents the kind and generous nature of the country's people.
Hess worked with Melissa Friday of Xan Creative to complete the design; she says the process was a learning experience because she felt like Friday brought far more than just an eye for decor, including a level of expertise with restaurants in general. She says the same of Angela Neri, bartender and co-owner of Pony Up in downtown Denver, who helped design the Ginger Pig's bar and cocktail menu. If you go, try the Notorious Dissent, named in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The Ginger Pig is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Hess has plans to eventually open for brunch and lunch, as well. Visit the restaurant's website for menus and online ordering; call 720-324-8416 for more details.
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