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It’s not all fried chicken out there. Sure, chefs are turning to comfort eating to attract more customers during the pandemic. Groceries like fried chicken, pizza, and burgers sell well, travel easily, and keep food costs down. But the otherwise overwhelmingly depressing economic disaster caused by five months of restricted business has seen an unexpected upward trend – and that is creativity.
Many chefs were out of work when COVID-19 reached Colorado, and others found their pre-COVID customer base just wasn’t there. Food trucks stalled, catering jobs collapsed, large social gatherings screeched to a halt. But those in the restaurant industry are a resilient and resourceful bunch, as long hours for low wages and tight margins tend to attract stubborn, die-hard rebels who only work harder in difficult times.
At Ace Eat Serve (501 East 17th Avenue), ping-pong has been off the table since mid-March, when the games in the bar and restaurant were restricted at the same time as the in-house meal was canceled. Even after the dining rooms were allowed to reopen to 50 percent capacity in late May, billiards and other attractions (if not, oddly enough, casino slot machines) were banned. Since then, some concessions have been made to allow single pool tables, but Ace owner Josh Wolkon has not yet received a permit for table tennis.
Instead, he and chef Thach Tran found other ways to generate a little more sales and attract customers. Tran makes poke and sushi for lunch with his Happy Go lucky pop-up and adds soup dumplings to the evening menu that were once in a while special. He only makes about fifteen orders a night – they’re very labor intensive, says Tran – and so far they’re sold out. Traditional Chinese soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao, are usually filled with pork and rich broth, but Tran has experimented with other fillings such as: B. green chilli and recently a ribeye-laden pho soup dumpling. Also on the menu: frozen wontons, bao, pot stickers and udon noodles that customers can pick up and heat up at home.
Tessa Deli recently served Indian idli sambars at a pop-up dinner.
Courtesy of Tessa Delicatessen
Wolkon and Tran are also helping Denver food truck owners by hosting weekly patio lunch pop-ups outside of Ace. First was Yuan Wonton, and last week Miss B’s was Vietnamese. Tran met Kim Bui, the chef / owner of Miss B’s, when she was preparing to launch her food truck last year, and the two bonded over childhood memories of their mothers’ cooking, he says.
Bui recently added one of these kids’ dishes to their food truck’s menu: Banh Cuon, a steamed rice roll that resembles a crepe and is made only with rice flour. It’s a tricky dish, even in a restaurant kitchen, because the thin batter is poured onto a piece of cloth stretched over a pot of boiling water. The result is a tender translucent sheet topped with minced pork and mushrooms (or other fillings), rolled and served with fresh herbs and crispy fried shallots. It’s not the type of dish you’d normally find in a food truck, but Bui has introduced a wider variety of Vietnamese dishes to share their favorites and offer customers something new to try.
Bar Dough also hosted the occasional food truck during dinner hours on its extended patio that winds around the side of the restaurant at 2227 West 32nd Avenue. When guests buy dinner in the food truck and cocktails or wine in the restaurant, everyone wins.
Indian home cooking popped up at Tessa Delicatessen, 5724 East Colfax Avenue, on Saturday night. Chef / owner Vince Howard doesn’t have to team up with a food truck, however, as his sous chef Harshita Birdi grew up in India and shared her family’s recipes for the pop-ups. Idli Sambar is hard to find in Denver, but the rice and lentil cakes topped with hot sauce are one of the dishes Birdi recently created. Howard says the dinners have been a huge hit with his customers so he plans to continue them regularly.
Thanks to the cook / co-owner Cindhura Reddy, Indian flavors and dishes have crept onto the menu in the otherwise Italian Spuntino at 2639 West 32nd Avenue. It also offers full South Indian take-away dinners on Sunday evenings with dishes such as methi chicken, eggplant curry, and chana masala. The dinners were so popular that Spuntino generally sold out on the restaurant’s online pre-order form.
The pandemic has hit Denver restaurants, but has also brought industrial workers together to create new business methods, offer unique dining experiences, and rise to the challenge. Convenience dining has increased, but so have creative pop-ups, chef dinners, mobile kitchens, and secret menus.
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Mark Antonation is the Westword Food & Drink Editor. He began eating and writing about every restaurant on Federal Boulevard, and continues to cover the diverse international food scene on Metro Denver and the city’s rapidly changing dining landscape. Mark was named an Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association in 2018.