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Thursday, September 12,2013

Home, sweet Zoe

By Blair Madole
Photo by Blair Madole

Tucked among the big names and Americanized menus on West Pearl sits a rare find in downtown Boulder: authenticity.

Zoe Ma Ma is easy to overlook, with its minimalist outdoor seating and small sign on 10th Street, not to mention the fact that you can pass it in about 15 steps. However, the awning professing “Super Yummy Street Food” isn’t a lie, and a venture inside is encouraged, even necessary, for those seeking an eating experience beyond the monotony of braised pork belly and beet and goat cheese salads.

The place is tiny. Its eight tables are packed with an assortment of Boulder types, ranging from bikers (the spandex-wearing type, not the leather-wearing type) to families with small children to trendy couples to food snobs to singles with tablets. This might be my favorite part about Zoe Ma Ma — it’s home to anyone who wants to claim it.

The vast number of contradictions jammed into the space is surprising: a poster promoting a transvestite comedy; calming music reminiscent of a visit to the spa; red cafeteria trays; fresh ingredients on display behind the counter. Perhaps most curious is how none of that matters, as though the presence of a chalkboard menu, open kitchen and Ma Ma bustling behind the counter overpowers any judgments about the décor.

I love the menu at Zoe Ma Ma. The chalk-written menu isn’t a new concept and, if anything, it has been overdone by trendy and overpriced eateries, but theirs isn’t done to stay cool — it’s because it’s simple. In fact, everything at Zoe Ma Ma is simple.

The selection is small, only five appetizers, or Dim Sum; six noodle and rice entrees; and four rotating specials, which I appreciate. It’s not a set-in-stone rule, but my general belief is that small menus produce the best food. There are no culinary buzzwords or complicated descriptions that make you wonder if what you are ordering is actually just a salad. The options are straightforward: potstickers, hot & sour soup, steamed buns, and so forth. The results are straightforward too. They are also unlike anything I’ve experienced in Boulder.

I can’t fully convey the experience of the first bite of a steamy bun. The bun itself is light, fluffy, perfect. Similar to how I think a savory cloud might taste. While I am still in awe over this doughy masterpiece I reach for the next bite and discover the filling. It is a delightful and unexpected combination of flavors: Allspice, cinnamon, ginger. The pork is tender and expertly seasoned. Whatever the family secret behind this dish, it is the ultimate comfort food.

Next, one of the rice and noodle dishes. I don’t think too hard on it. It’s hot out, so I go straight to the cool noodle, or Liang Ban Mian, with chicken. This refreshing dish is a brilliant bowl filled with fresh egg noodles, cucumber, bean sprouts and a tangy-spicy-saucy combination of ginger and sesame, all topped with cilantro and green onion. The bean sprouts are a playful, crunchy counterpoint to the egg noodles. The cucumber is the perfect foil for the slightly spicy sauce. The cilantro and green onion add bite. It’s tough to find anything wrong with that.

I was lucky enough to arrive on a Saturday, which means the roast duck wonton noodle soup special is up for grabs. The fatty duck in this dish is smoky, silky, and perfectly balanced by the rest of the ingredients. Fresh bok choy provides crunch and spice, firm noodles add substance and delicate broth ties it all together. The handmade wonton is simply an added bonus.

I’m a sucker for tea. Iced, jasmine, oolong — you name it, I love it. Zoe Ma Ma has all three options in self-serve silver carafes like you might find in a conference room or convention hall. They’re fresh and tasty, so I don’t care how they are presented. I wash everything down with the iced green tea and I’m a happy eater.

I don’t believe a restaurant can excel just with fabulous food. Ambience is key. When I say Zoe Ma Ma is authentic, I don’t just mean it has real, traditional, tasty Chinese street food. I mean it has the entire warm-and-fuzzy atmosphere I crave in a family-owned restaurant, from the mother-and-son pictures on the wall to the inevitable personal exchanges between customers and Ma Ma that will occur anytime you visit. Zoe Ma Ma may not be your mother, but she does a helluva job making you feel at home.

Zoe Ma Ma is located at 2010 10th St., Boulder. Call 303-545-6262.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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