The snowstorm that swept through Denver over the weekend didn't quite live up to the dire predictions that had residents clearing grocery-store shelves in advance of the weather, but more cold temperatures and snow are in the forecast for the next several days, making the tease of mild, sunny days a distant memory. However miserable you may feel at having to bundle up once again, somebody's mom is thinking about you and wants to make sure you stay warm. You're in charge of your own hats, scarves and gloves, but leave it to Edwin Zoe's mom at Zoe Ma Ma to fill your belly full of warm and steamy Chinese goodness.
Anne Zoe has been in charge of the kitchen since the original Zoe Ma Ma opened in Boulder in 2010, and now she's tending the woks and stock pots at the Denver branch that opened last month. (Once the crew there is fully trained, shewill split her time between the two restaurants.) The important detail is that Denver's branch, located in a sliver of a space with almost all of its seating along bright windows that run the entire length of the room, features the same love and attention given to each dish that's the hallmark of the Boulder original.
That love and attention to detail is lavished on noodles, dumplings and buns all made in-house on a daily basis; a visit at the right time of day reveals the gentle slap-slap sound of dumplings being formed by hand, the steamy cloud of stock pots simmering and a vague mixture of spices in the air.
Despite a bland exterior that could easily be the facade of a contemporary software company or electronics store, the interior is both quaint and modern, with a wall of bright windows and decor that captures the spirit of rural China. Tea pots and glazed ceramics share space with crimson paper lanterns and gleaming steel kitchen equipment. A condiment is stocked with vats of fresh sauce and petite ramekins for conveying your choices back to your table. A chalkboard menu displays the regular selections as well as daily specials.
Dumplings and buns on the dim sum menu are mercifully priced individually (ranging from $1.25 to $2.95), making decisions just a little easier; you can indulge in a potsticker or two without committing to a full plate of appetizers while still leaving room — in the budget and the belly — for a main dish. On a quick stop in for lunch on a blustery day, I was craving warm, steamy things with winter spices and comforting sauces. The bao buns seemed just the right starter; the menu even described them as "steamy." The menu also includes a 15 percent service charge as a "sustainability initiative" (more on that here). While customers are given the option of declining the fee, doing so can be a little awkward, as you have to announce your decision at the counter within hearing range of all in line. The subtle guilt-trip dulled my appetite just a little, but since I generally leave at least that much as a tip, even at counter-service restaurants, I didn't feel too put out.
Bao buns seem to be cropping up on menus around town with various stuffings: pork belly, duck confit, even pastrami. Most of these are of the folded variety, like a steamed slider bun hinged on one side. Zoe Ma Ma's are of the closed variety, like a small purse with a gathered closure at the top, and come filled with marinated pork, chicken curry or a vegetarian mixture. I went with the pork bao, a thick, tender, yeasty layer of steamed dough surrounding slow-cooked minced pork in a rich brown sauce.
The icy day outside melted away as I dipped my spoon into a bowl of the day's special, Sichuan braised beef noodles. A tangle of fresh, toothsome noodles supported chunks of soft-cooked beef and what looked like overcooked cabbage with a wash-out green hue but that turned out to be pickled greens that gave the bowl a splash of vibrant acidity. A deep spice blend with star anise on the forefront permeated the beef and broth; a dollop of chile sauce from the condiment bar added bright heat. Soon the frigid wind and snow banks were a distant memory and the bright sun coming in through the window could have been from a mild spring day. Fortified and warmed through, a slog through slushy puddles and plowed piles of snow back to my car didn't seem like such a daunting task.
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