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When the news hit in late August that the Ginger Pig, Natascha Hess’ three-year-old Asian street food restaurant in Berkeley, had garnered a Bib Gourmand nod from the Michelin Guide, Hess was stunned. She never would have guessed that her little startup of a food-truck-turned-restaurant would receive such an honor.
That the Michelin Guide staff thought her food provided an exceptionally high value at a low cost wasn’t shocking; it was more that Hess’ culinary adventures had garnered any attention at all. Cooking is, after all, Hess’ third career. She worked in sports broadcasting and then practiced law, but food was an early love—and her palate began to develop when she was just a child.
Hess was 12 when she first traveled to Japan. At the time, she was simply excited to see her brother, who lived in Tokyo, but she became captivated by Japanese cuisine. Later, while majoring in Chinese language in college, Hess returned to Asia, living for three summers with a Chinese family in Beijing. It was Nalu Zhang, the family matriarch, who not only taught Hess how to cook, but also how to eat. “The family used to cook together every night and eat together,” Hess says. “The whole idea of sharing and eating family-style, it really connects you, and it changed the way I like to eat.”
Hess’ love of those family dinners informs both the Ginger Pig’s format and its communal atmosphere. A neon sign that translates to the informal Chinese greeting “chi le ma” or “Have you eaten?” sits over the register and both welcomes you and underscores the intention of the space: to gather and enjoy the pleasure of good food. Give your name to the host, then head to the bar for an Okinawa old fashioned stirred with Japanese whisky while you wait. When your table is ready, you’ll make your way through the bustling, marketlike space to order at the counter.
So what exactly should you choose? There’s char siu, a supremely tender, sweet-savory Chinese barbecue pork served with jasmine rice (this classic was a menu standout on the food truck, which debuted in 2016); a fiery, umami-rich ground pork noodle dish called ma yi shang shu tossed with fermented chile bean paste and Sichuan oil; a shatteringly crisp Korean fried chicken; and vegan Sichuan eggplant featuring slippery slices of Chinese eggplant lacquered in a dark sauce of scallion, garlic, bean paste, and sambal. Each of these dishes is lusty and rich, but my heart lies with the Xinjiang yang rou, a lamb stir-fry that bursts with the earthy-citrusy flavor of cumin seed. Another favorite, the mentaiko spaghetti—a wildly popular dish in Japan—sings with the oceanic flavors of pollock roe and furikake, a spice mixture of dried nori and sesame seeds.
Hess’ dishes showcase Sichuan peppercorns and spicy chiles, but in a way that typically translates to deep flavor, not overriding heat. Even so, the spice level can creep up. Many entrées come with jasmine rice and a smashed cucumber salad that help tamp down the flames, but the most effective fire hydrant is the xi duo shi, a cornflake-crusted Hong Kong–style French toast. The crunchy-sweet layers of Texas-toast-style white bread, fried cornflakes, kaya (coconut) jam, sweetened condensed milk, and butter fit firmly into the dessert category. But when ordered as an appetizer (the item is listed in both spots on the menu), the dish—which traditionally features peanut butter instead of kaya jam—serves as an extinguisher when subsequent courses get too spicy. Plus, leftovers pair spectacularly well with coffee the next morning.
One minor quibble I had with Hess’ menu is repetition. As such, you’ll want to pay close attention to balance when ordering. If you choose too many dishes from the same section, you might layer up on similar flavors, ingredients, and spice levels. In particular, the di san xian, a stir-fry of potatoes, eggplant, and red pepper, felt redundant when also ordering the Sichuan spicy eggplant. (Of the two, choose the eggplant.) Similarly, there’s no need to order the refreshing smashed cucumber salad as a small plate if you’re also choosing an entrée, which will arrive with the cucumbers as a side.
Despite the Ginger Pig’s evolution from a four-wheeled eatery into a brick-and-mortar restaurant (there’s also a takeout-only location in Boulder), its offerings remain in the realm of approachable street food, but they’re finely tuned and infused with serious soul. After all, chewy dumplings and savory noodles sustain the belly in a way that only comfort food can. And for Hess, this is comfort food. “As my Chinese sister says, the Ginger Pig is a tribute to her mom, who sadly passed away before the restaurant came to fruition,” Hess says. “Food is tied to so many memories and time spent with friends and family.” 4262 Lowell Blvd.
- The Draw: Asian street food; inventive takes on traditional dishes
- The Drawback: The restaurant is busy, so be prepared to wait
- Noise Level: Medium to loud
- Don’t Miss: Lamb stir-fry, Hong Kong French toast, mentaiko spaghetti
3 New Asian Spots You Should Try Now
Bryan’s Dumpling House specializes in noodle dishes and Chinese dumplings. Order the xiao long bao sampler: a steamer basket with eight differently flavored soup dumplings stuffed with everything from mushrooms to kimchi. Kids will love the window into the kitchen, where they can watch the perfect little parcels being folded. 8000 E. Belleview Ave., Suite B45, Greenwood Village
Penelope Wong’s Yuan Wonton, which shares a space with Sweets & Sourdough, a scratch bakery, doles out dumplings Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 8:30 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Drop in for breakfast to try rare-in-Denver dishes such as the Chinese tomato egg sando and yam kai dao (wok-fried eggs dressed in a Thai citrus dressing). 2878 Fairfax St.
When MAKfam opened in Baker in November, it put Kenneth G. Wan’s and Doris Yuen’s Cantonese American roots front and center with modern takes on the dishes they grew up eating. Order at the counter, sip an inventive cocktail such as a boozy Hong Kong iced tea, and do not miss the chicken and shrimp wontons (fancy wun tun tong). Tip: Make the most of the extra broth by dipping an order of lacy scallion pancakes into it. 39 W. First Ave.