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Food Matters: The yin and yang of the new Bokchoy

Amanda Rae
Food Matters

IF YOU GO ...

Bokchoy

Open Wednesday to Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

308 S. Hunter St.

970-544-9888

Order takeout online: http://www.bokchoyaspen.com

New year, new adventures in food. On Jan. 25, a friend and I seek tasty refuge from frigid temps at the tail end of après-ski. How better to celebrate Chinese New Year, we figure, than at the new — and only — fast-casual, quick-serve Chinese restaurant in Aspen?

Bokchoy East/West Kitchen opened quietly Jan. 1 in the space formerly occupied by Little Ollie’s, after a complete renovation “from floor to ceiling, wall to wall,” with a Chinese-native kitchen crew and fresh “dumpling house” menu, according to managing partner David Roth.

Now, to watch the bright, calm space fill with diners as day turns to dusk is like watching a lotus flower blossom at warp speed in a “Planet Earth” episode. From my perch at a four-top corner table, I notice many customers approach the entrance of Bokchoy curiously, if a bit tentatively. Teens from X Games. Families on vacation. Couples on date night. Patrons spilling out of Zane’s Tavern next door notice, and shuffle over to peek inside. From the courtyard, it’s apparent that something exciting is happening here.

Roth, along with junior partners Frank and Kate Lu of Jing, designed Bokchoy according to feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice that considers energy forces of buildings, objects and habitants to create harmony and flow. Hoping to set a certain tone, the team reconfigured a brand-new door, centered among a row of windows and painted lucky red. Once inside, a visitor can step straight to the counter to order, after which a server will deliver the meal.

“It seems like everything is put together where it was meant to be,” Roth marvels, gesturing toward sleek-white high-top tables, bamboo chairs, and height-adjustable gold pendant lamps. “That’s me working with Kate. We have a certain synergy. She’s the foundation that holds up all the creative ideas. Frank’s creativeness with the food, that’s a whole other thing.”

Together Roth and chef Frank Lu plotted the menu, centered on wok-sautéed vegetables ($9-$16) and dim sum ($6-$14), along with lightened-up versions of Chinese classics ($16-$19). Dumplings ($9) are the main draw, including the familiar steamed variety in chicken or mushroom-veggie with crispy bottoms; glossy white har gow stuffed with juicy whole shrimp; open-face pork-shrimp shumai; and succulent soup dumplings best slurped in one big bite.

Find chicken (General Tso’s, kung pao, orange, sesame); beef (Mongolian with broccoli); seafood (walnut shrimp, teriyaki salmon); and duck (barbecue-roasted over bok choy with majorly craveable Shanghai secret sauce). A BBQ half-duck is the priciest item on the menu—an anomaly at $27, to share—but fans of Lu’s signature dish at Jing will understand why. Among hearty fried rice and noodles ($16-$19) are “8-veggie” or “kitchen sink” options.

There are a few surprises, too. An instant standout is the Krack Chicken and Waffle: crispy morsels of chicken served in a waffle-cone dish lined with maple syrup. (Coated in rice-flour, the poultry is gluten-free; the sweet edible vessel is not.) There are dessert wontons and a “muffin of the moment.” Four soups include egg flower, hot ‘n’ sour, wonton noodle, or matzo ball.

Availability of this Jewish staple makes sense—and why the entire Bokchoy experience might spark a glimmer of déjà-vu—when one realizes that Roth helmed Peach’s Corner Café for years until it closed in 2017. Roth and the Lus were around-the-corner neighbors before Asie Restaurant became Jing.

“When I met Frank I was very enthusiastic about watching the evolution of Asie to Jing,” says Roth, an accomplished restaurant consultant in the U.S., Bangkok and Bali, who helped with that transition. “We befriended each other over food.”

Yin-yang elements infuse many aspects of Bokchoy. Recipes draw mainly on Northern China, specifically Shanghai, where Lu was classically trained and enjoyed early success as a chef-restaurateur. Both Roth and Lu lean toward vibrant flavors with organic ingredients when possible, a philosophy shared by Peach’s (R.I.P.) and Jing. That Bokchoy’s menu leads with vegetables such as seared kung pao cauliflower is “a reflection of what we’re attempting to do for the community,” Roth says. The goal: offer a greener spin on a cuisine that regularly gets a bad rap as greasy, carb-bomb fare.

By Aspen standards, Bokchoy also feels vaguely futuristic in a few environmentally minded ways. First, all food arrives in recyclable, biodegradable containers. This serves a dual purpose: it eliminates gallons of water per person on dishwashing and makes taking leftovers to-go as simple as snapping on a lid. Alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages are displayed in a self-serve case at the front of the room (see sidebar, this page). The corner of each table is stuck discreetly with a QR code decal: Scan it with a smartphone camera to navigate the Bokchoy website for instant ordering (food for pickup may be ordered this way also). Roth is even cautiously experimenting with Impossible Foods plant-based “meat” in one dumpling preparation. (It tastes like cheeseburger!)

Soon: grab-and-go, heat-and-eat dumplings to prepare at home, and private dumpling classes upon request. All of which helps to invigorate Aspen’s dining landscape while striking delicate balance within Bokchoy—fitting, as Chinese culture settles into 2020’s Year of the Rat, believed to symbolize abundance and optimism.

“We’re not trying to ‘modernize’ Chinese food,” Roth maintains. And yet: “There’s a little bit of a twist to it.”

Choose Your Own Elixir

A glowing beverage case in the corner of Bokchoy recalls those hip Asian vending machines you may have only heard about, and everything is self-serve. The eclectic array of more than 30 drinks spans Boylan Creme Soda and imported iced teas to Dram Apothecary adaptogenic CBD sparkling water. There’s Sapporo, Asahi and Blue Moon by the bottle; Coors in a can. Kid-favorite peach, melon, and strawberry soft drinks from Japan, even Mango White Claw. Or reach for the top-shelf kaleidoscope of grab-and-go sake, including one by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and another with its own drinking cup. Gānbēi!

amandaraewashere@gmail.com


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