Hawaii is a world away from Colorado, both in distance and climate. But restaurateur Troy Guard has figured out how to combine the best of both worlds over the past decade or so at his flagship restaurant, TAG. Fresh seafood, Pacific Rim influences and the best Colorado meats and seasonal produce have always been a part of Guard's lineup — and the Hawaiian connection shows in his hiring, too. The newest chef de cuisine at the upscale Larimer Square eatery is Anthony Gonzales, who was born and raised on Hawaii's Big Island.
Gonzales joined Guard's team in late 2018 and was originally brought on as an executive sous-chef; he worked in that role at several of the TAG Restaurant Group locations, including Los Chingones and the now-closed Mister Tuna, before Guard tapped him to head the kitchen at TAG.
The selection of Gonzales wasn't arbitrary; Guard himself grew up in Hawaii and, after graduating from college in San Diego, returned there to work under legendary Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi. Gonzales, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, also worked at Roy's in Waikoloa before heading off to culinary school. Gonzales says that he and Guard knew many of the same restaurant pros in Hawaii, so he had plenty of references for the Colorado job.
Gonzales notes that Guard gives him plenty of creative leeway with the menu, even if the restaurateur sits down with the TAG team regularly to review flavors, ingredients and dishes. "He definitely likes to lean on the Hawaiian flavor and ingredients — passion fruit, hearts of palm, seafood," Gonzales notes. "So we take the bones of certain dishes and morph them into something more continental or American. He's super-open to other people's influences."
The combination of Hawaiian influences and Colorado ingredients can be seen in many of TAG's classic dishes, as well as menu items introduced by Gonzales. "We change up the menu about four times a year, so this one's about 70 percent different than before the [coronavirus] shutdown," he notes.
But even between those quarterly overhauls, new ingredients show up as they become available on the market. A hangar steak entree on the current roster comes studded with morel mushrooms, just at the end of their season; fresh green beans and young Yukon Gold potatoes (turned into gnocchi) also add seasonality beneath slices of rare steak. You can see other Gonzales efforts to mesh flavors throughout the menu; a plate of grilled broccolini with shaved horseradish seems built as a side dish for the steak, even if it also shares common ground with the gai lan (Chinese broccoli) typically served at dim sum restaurants.
"We just had some really nice cherries come through, so we're pickling cherries right now and using them on our pork bao buns," Gonzales explains. "We talk a lot with the Fresh Guys [Produce] every week to see what's coming up in the next couple of weeks so we can plan menus."
Other new dishes include the Palisade hamachi crudo, made with thin slices of peach, serrano and cilantro; a firecracker roll that gets a little extra heft from smoked salmon; and an unusual small plate of sweet corn cakes (resembling silver dollar pancakes) served with house-cultured honey butter and smoked trout roe. The combination of corn, butter and salty roe comes across as somehow Southern and familiar while also completely otherworldly.
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The chef points out that many of TAG's classics are still on the menu, including the torched hamachi topped with pop rocks (a playful touch indicative of Guard's style), the taco sushi and the seafood potstickers. A few of the newer selections can be sampled on the happy hour menu: There's La Mozz burrata with tomato marmalade, those corn cakes with butter and roe, and Thai-inspired fried rice, all for $5 each.
Gonzales says he's happy to call Colorado his new home, even if it's a stark contrast to his birthplace. "I miss the fish being as fresh and accessible as it is there," he admits, "but I also love seeing my daughter experience all four seasons in a way I never had."
Experience the seasons of chef Anthony Gonzales's cooking at TAG. The restaurant, at 1441 Larimer Street, is currently open from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a "socially distanced happy hour" from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on those days. Larimer between 14th and 15th streets is closed to vehicle traffic for the rest of the summer, so TAG has plenty of outdoor seating. Visit tag-restaurant.com or call 303-996-9985 for details and reservations.