Aspen Times Weekly: Getting on the List
IF YOU GO ...
411 E. Main St.
Opening June 9
312 S. Mill St.
301 E. Hopkins Ave.
IT’S EASY TO SPOT first-timers to Mi Chola, Aspen’s newest Mexican restaurant: Their eyes scan the bold interior, perhaps with eyebrows raised and mouths slightly agape. The restaurant on the southeast corner of Main and Mill streets has been revamped in dark wood and shiny metallic tones with tufted seating in vibrant fuchsia leather and a massive, black-and-white, Day of the Dead-inspired, pinup-chic mural in the dining room. Amid ropes, skulls, and thumping music, one imagines: This is exactly the kind of spot where my badass b*tch would hang.
Visual swagger is enough to whet appetites, but the true test for long-term success at any eatery is in the food. Even before chips and salsa hit the table, a quick study of Mi Chola’s tri-fold menu makes the point: This is no Cantina 3.0.
Among the more unconventional standouts: ahi tuna tartare tostadas, Korean barbecue beef tacos, and Colorado mountain trout with tropical salsa and garlic spinach. A flaky sopapilla is stuffed with seasoned ground beef, cheese, and Hatch green chile — a dish rarely seen outside of New Mexico. Vegetarian eyes will gravitate toward earnest options including the impressive Harvest Bowl: a mound of mostly seasonal veggies (Brussels spouts, asparagus, carrots, and zucchini, currently) over jalapeno-cilantro rice and black beans with roasted red salsa, radish, and pickled onion, topped with a crush of crispy kale and toasted puffed rice.
Another colorful dish that commands attention might be the first of its kind: the Risotto Relleno, a roasted poblano pepper filled with crab, shrimp, roasted corn, wild mushroom, red pepper, and plenty of queso blanco.
“We’re probably the only Mexican restaurant on the planet that has risotto,” says Mi Chola co-owner and general manager Darren Chapple. “We stuff it in a chile for a nice fusion. That’s turned out to be one of our bestsellers — big time!”
These items join traditional fare — chicken chile verde and tortilla soup, for instance, are made according to original recipes from La Cantina nearly 30 years ago.
“There are certain staples you must have to legitimately call yourself a Mexican restaurant: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, fajitas, carnitas,” Chapple explains. (Mi Chola offers all of these.) “But the progression of Mexican food in the past 10 to 15 years has become much more experimental. Even within Mexico there are many different styles of cuisines. We focus on Latin American: Argentinian-style chimichurri, a Peruvian-inspired ceviche. A lot of these things you don’t see elsewhere (in town).”
No doubt, opening in May with such an extensive menu stressed out Mi Chola’s kitchen staff. But Chapple and partner Adam Malmgren were adamant about offering an array of fun, creative dishes beyond the familiar favorites (ahem, combo plates) that folks expect. They faced a double-whammy challenge: Separate Mi Chola from previous iterations of Mexican restaurants in this high-rent location, and debunk common misperceptions about that very style of food. A solid menu, then, was their road map.
“People walk in here ready to be disappointed,” quips Chapple, who joined La Cantina in Aspen in 1997 and acted as a managing partner from 2003 to 2009 before decamping to Southern California to open the wildly successful La Rosa Tequileria & Grille in Santa Rosa. “A lot of people have a negative, overbearing, heavy connotation about Mexican food. We overcome that by offering really good veggie tacos, light salads, kale, kombucha, and hearty, flavorful options — to hit all the bases for the diverse Aspen demographic.”
Just a few blocks away on the Mill Street pedestrian mall, chef C. Barclay Dodge is set to open Bosq on June 9. Long before the 40-seat space was gutted and refurbished, the restaurateur planned his menu. Formerly the chef-owner of Mogador and executive chef of Pacifica, both beloved, long-lost Aspen haunts, Dodge respects the importance of understanding his audience.
“Over-the-top, foodie food is not super popular in this town,” says Dodge, emphasizing that Bosq is not a clone of Mogador, which offered a nightly 10-course tasting menu and earned a reputation as a special-occasion spot. “We have an affluent clientele, but they want a simpler style of eating in Aspen. Maybe because we’re so active and don’t want massive meals. I try to keep the menu well-rounded yet push the envelope a little bit, too.”
Bosq’s menu is structured as a progression influenced by Dodge’s culinary spirit, focusing on light, fresh dishes absent of heavy starches and influenced by modern Chinese cookery. Starters include a selection of bite-size snacks — black truffle-salted potato chips; chicken liver mousse with toast and Vietnamese pickles; and crab arancini (rice balls) with spicy seafood XO sauce — all meant for sharing.
“Having that sense of community is key,” Dodge says, “to draw people into the center of the table. When you pull in, the conversation pulls in.”
True to his trademark, Dodge features a number of raw proteins (crudo, tartare) boasting bright flavors, “to get you fired up and salivating, wanting to eat and drink more,” he says. Wild salmon crudo with lime zest and jalapeño, he adds, “is a Pacifica dish that was a total winner. Same with halibut ceviche. I know it works.”
Six or seven salads and appetizers turn richer and deeper, boasting “luscious, umami-driven, rounded flavors,” such as a fava bean salad with chiles, Thai basil, and crispy shallots; burrata with red cherries, morel mushrooms and watercress leaves; and — here’s a palate-stretcher — oxtail dumplings with tomato marmalade and sugar snap peas. All entrées at Bosq are à la carte, so small plates help to create a more substantial meal when desired. Casual diners might choose two or three to taste over cocktails. The goal, Dodge says, is to urge diners to return often, to try everything.
Perhaps most exciting for Dodge at Bosq, or any chef-restaurateur opening a new venue, is the opportunity to create signature dishes. “Peking duck is such a classic but it’s been left to Chinatown for a long time,” says Dodge, who sees it primed for resurgence. Similarly, he anticipates a star in Bosq’s roasted lamb with green olive, celery, Parmesan, and pistachio salsa verde. “It’s a fatty piece of meat, so it’s definitely for the foodie,” he says “But look at pork belly: it’s been hot for a long time.”
Shanghai-style, whole Colorado striped bass balances a straightforward preparation of salmon with garlic-roasted green beans and blistered cherry tomatoes. Roasted chicken finds its place, too.
“You need to keep simple things on (a menu) to attract people as well,” Dodge explains. “At Cache Cache I eat the chicken and the frisée salad…some of that stuff has been on the menu forever.”
Execution, determined according to kitchen staff, equipment, and storage space, is also of utmost importance. “I want things to be quick,” says Dodge, whose tiny kitchen at Bosq offers limited storage. “Not so complicated and ingredient-driven that it takes forever to produce early in the day during prep and later in the day during pickup.”
Fast prep and speedy pickup were guiding principles in creating the menu at Hooch, according to Avalanche Cheese Company director of operations Brennan Buckley. He describes the menu as, “bar snacks without being bar food — a little country club with Asian influence.” Most are shareable snacks — boards topped with salmon, pâté, or meat and cheese plus accoutrements; shrimp cocktail; a giant bowl of warm, spiced nuts — plus a few items to satisfy stronger appetites, such as Sichuan pork dan dan noodles, a Vietnamese hoagie, and lemongrass turkey meatballs. Many of the necessary ingredients (ramen for the noodles, house-smoked ham for the bánh mì wannabe) hail from sister restaurant Meat & Cheese upstairs.
“There is one cook (at Hooch)—the kitchen is pretty much a closet,” Buckley says. “We have a sandwich station with a couple of lowboys, and a hot well with a small convection oven and panini press, and that’s about it. We don’t have a hood. We can’t fry. We can’t do much above boiling water.”
Chapple, Dodge, and Buckley agree: Working within limitations when planning a menu streamlines the process. One thing you won’t find on any of their menus, as seasonal as they may be? “Farm to table.”
“The word is so overused,” Dodge says. His exasperation is palpable. “In Aspen you’re doing farm to table in February? Your produce is coming from Mexico and California! It’s BS.”
Menu labels, it seems, mean more than even before.
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Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.