A side-hustle passion project spices up takeout at Bamboo Bear
IF YOU GO…
Beef Jerky, $12 (¼ pound bag)
Open Thu-Tue 11:30 to 8:30
730. E. Cooper Ave.
Bamboo Bear is also collaborating with ceramist Eric Brownstein of the Studio 517 artist collective (located at 517 Hopkins Ave.), who has created custom soup bowls ($TK) in white and red clay, for purchase. “When you get to your house (and) don’t have a bowl big enough to put your pho in, or the noodle salad,” chef Vinnie Bagford says of the 32- to 36-ounce vessels. “These are made from a two-pound ball of clay—they’re thin-walled but not too thin.”
If food is a universal language, then Vinnie Bagford is fluent in the OG street slang. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March and restaurants across town have scrambled to adapt to new modes of operation under social distancing restrictions, the Bamboo Bear chef/owner has returned to his roots. Bagford is ramping up production of a snack that predates the 1879 founding of Aspen by at least 300 years: beef jerky.
“I’ve been making jerky my whole life,” Bagford said last Thursday, while unloading a truck full of imported ingredients from a weekly run to Asian markets in Denver. He flips the lids of three massive coolers to show off 270 pounds of Colorado beef nestled in ice. Some of this will be sliced thin for Bamboo Bear’s authentic Vietnamese pho and noodle bowls, but about half of it will be marinated, dehydrated and vacuum-sealed for grab-and-go takeaway.
“In winter offseason 2019 I started playing around with it again, and came up with this house-special marinade with the Bear Breath and sesame seeds that people are going goo-goo on. Now with COVID…I got a new dehydrator. With all the craziness, I thought, what else can I offer?”
Bear Breath is the addictively spicy chile sauce that accompanies Bamboo Bear’s most popular dish of street food: the crispy chicken combo plate with broken rice and pickled vegetables. Now that beef prices have leveled off after a drastic spike in the early weeks of the global crisis, Bagford is tweaking a handful of other flavors and dehydrating about 100 pounds of beef weekly. Quarter-pound bags ($12) may be purchased from the Bamboo Bear pickup window; Bagford has shipped product as far as North Carolina and California. Soon customers may order online from the website.
“Look at the textures,” continues Bagford, now inside the restaurant with a box of nine pint-sized containers labeled with black marker. “See, that’s a wet jerky; that’s a wet-dry jerky. Each texture is different due to the marinade. They’ve all been marinated the same length of time in a different solution. Old Pappy is dried and brittle—it’s salt, sugar, Lea & Perrins, spices, onion, garlic…(another) is sweet soy, fish sauce, sugar, salt, teriyaki sauce.”
One version is dusted with chile-flecked seasoning for Korean short-ribs; another with barbecue spice. A gluten-free preparation eschews soy sauce for maple syrup and Colorado honey, which creates a chewier, sweeter treat.
“It’s got flex to it,” Bagford quips.
Serving some of the most affordable food in town since it opened in June 2016, Bamboo Bear’s got flex, too. Despite the fact that the dilapidated Buckhorn Arms building has been slated for demolition since day one, Bagford, along with wife and partner, Xuan Ha, has expanded the business and doubled its footprint with additional seating in the past few years. Now, however, he’s nixed that indoor seating for takeout food only. (Outdoor seating is available, however limited.)
Jerky seekers should look for the yellow signs, posted at the intersection of Original Street and Cooper Avenue, across from City Market Aspen. (Ideally, Bagford would post up at the top of Independence Pass, “like that guy in Summit County who goes up between Leadville and Copper,” but such a stand would require another staffer—a sticking point for seemingly every restaurant in town.)
For now, Bagford is experimenting with a “deconstructed pemmican stick,” like those prepared by Native Americans from shredded buffalo meat and tallow, perhaps with dried blueberries, seeds and nuts.
“It’s great for outdoor activities,” Bagford notes. “Swing by, grab this, and keep on rollin’. We have a handwritten sign, so you know it’s homemade. Just poke your head in, like, ‘Hey, I want jerky!’”
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.