Restaurateur Edwin Zoe, founder of Zoe Ma Ma and Chimera, has dealt with some tough milestones lately. His birthday was on March 16, the day that Governor Jared Polis announced that all restaurants and bars would have to close the next day because of the COVID pandemic. And then the original Zoe Ma Ma, at 2010 Tenth Street in Boulder, celebrated its ten-year anniversary on May 4 while dealing with drastically reduced sales and takeout-only business
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."
Long before the pandemic swept through, Zoe and Chimera's GM, Brodie McNeil, started planning the changes. Then, in January, they traveled to Singapore, Vietnam and Japan for culinary inspiration. Zoe says they ate at several restaurants a day for each meal in search of the best flavors, focusing on ramen, pho and banh mi, but also delving into the best dishes of each city they visited.
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.
Zoe was already making noodles from scratch for Chimera's ramen (one of very few places in the metro area that doesn't buy pre-made noodles), and he thinks his new broth recipes put the restaurant's ramen among the best in town. But he also says that it's not a matter of just writing down a new recipe; he's always striving for perfection. "I've always felt that ramen is a practice," he states. "I can do this until my last breath, and I'll still be evolving and learning."
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.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.