But despite the difficult days, Zoe has been making plans for the future. "For several years I've had a vision to create a Little Asia — a mini district on West Pearl," he explains.
Although the two Zoe Ma Ma locations (the second is at 1625 Wynkoop Street, next to Union Station) have remained open for carryout, Chimera has been closed since March 17. But Zoe was already planning a big change there by refocusing the menu and dividing the space into two separate restaurants. "At Chimera, I realized that what people really want is ramen," he notes. So he built a partition and will soon relaunch half of the restaurant as Chimera Ramen.
The other half will be devoted to something entirely new: Pho Mi, a Vietnamese eatery specializing in pho and banh mi. While it seems like a risky time to be making big changes, Zoe thinks it will position him to emerge from the restaurant closures with concise menus and food that the neighborhood will want. "I asked myself, 'Do we just fold our hand?'" he recalls. "No, what we need to do is follow through on what we had planned."
One of their discoveries was the rishiri ramen of Miraku Ramen in Yokohama. Zoe explains that its broth is heavy on kombu (dried kelp), and that it was one of the best things he ate on the whole trip. The dish inspired his new Miso Happy ramen, which uses kombu, miso and bonito in the broth, resulting in complex layers of umami that start out subtly but build as you near the bottom of the bowl.
In Saigon, McNeil and Zoe visited Pho Hoa Pasteur, where they found the flavors they were looking for to build their own beef, chicken and vegetable pho broths. And Zoe marveled at the ability of Vietnamese cooks to turn out the best food from tiny street carts, stalls and booths.
The restaurateur's vision for Little Asia will begin on June 1, when Chimera Ramen opens for takeout and limited delivery, followed by Pho Mi on July 1. Since all the food will be packaged to go to begin with, Zoe has put a lot of thought into packaging the ramen, pho and even the banh mi as kits to keep the ingredients as fresh as possible before customers finish assembly themselves. Delivery will be limited to a radius of just a few blocks at first, since Zoe won't be hiring third-party services. "Please let people know that Grubhub is evil," he says, pointing out the outrageous service fees that prevent restaurants from profiting from delivery orders.
Until the two new concepts launch, Zoe Ma Ma is still doing what it's always done, serving great dumplings, noodle bowls and other Chinese fare from Zoe and his mother, Anna.