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Thursday, September 9,2010

Step away from the buffet

By Clay Fong
As part of my ongoing efforts to craft a taxonomy for Chinese restaurants, I recently realized there are two main angles to categorizing these eateries. The first is assessing the formality and pricing of the place, ranging from the come-one-come-all budget dive to the high-end banquet hall reserved for wedding festivities. The second, and perhaps more important, is authenticity.

At the low end of the scale, you’ve got the sesame chicken chains that are about as close to real-deal Asian as a can of Spaghetti-Os is to fine Abruzzo pasta. Next up are more authentic but still reasonably priced spots where you’re likely to see Asian families converge. Lastly, you’ve got places like Zoe Ma Ma with milder, more restrained flavors that are more authentic than just about anything else available stateside, as the cooks likely trained in Asia. In this case, the owner’s mom presides over the kitchen, which makes for serious street cred.

There’s not exactly a San Franciscostyle Cantonese menu at Zoe Ma Ma.

Sure, they have pot stickers and steamed bao, the pork-filled dim sum white buns. But there’s also chicken soup with pickled vegetables, northern Chinese noodle dishes and zong zi, best described as a sticky rice-filled Chinese tamale wrapped in bamboo leaf and freighted with pork.

For starters, friend Jon and I sampled a pair of $1.25 potstickers and a $1.25 pearl meatball. The classic dumpling, head and shoulders over what you’d get at Costco, was delicate in consistency and flavor, in no small part due to a stuffing of both pork and shrimp. The pearl meatball, a sphere of pork, shrimp and water chestnut, came covered with grains of steamed rice. Resembling a savory Hostess snowball cake, this had a light flavor similar to the potstickers, but with a pleasing textural contrast provided by the rice coating.

 

Jon opted for the $6.95 Za Jiang Mian sans noodles, a hearty mix of ground pork, sauce and veggies. Decent on a waning summer day, this dish had a heft that will be even more welcome on a cool autumn day. Jon also enjoyed a $1.95 side of Asian veggies, including a nearly creamy baby bok choy, among other greens cooked to a fine crisp-tender consistency My main course was the special, $11.79 Sichuan Braised Beef Noodles. While it could have used more peppery heat, this dish was pleasantly perfumed with cinnamon and star anise, and it wasn’t too salty. The texture of the meltin-your mouth chunks of beef was reminiscent of top-notch clay pot presentations. The hefty noodles were perfectly cooked, making for the best Asian pasta preparation in town.

While the flavors don’t replicate those of Chinese eateries from my youth, Zoe Ma Ma’s offerings possess their own set of virtues. Fresh flavors, skilled cooking and quality ingredients are all on display here — just don’t expect boldly assertive flavors. The main issue one might have with this restaurant is price. Sure, $11.79 is pretty hefty for a bowl of beef noodle soup, but by the time you drove to South Federal in Denver or even Broomfield for something at this level, you would have spent considerable time and gas money. Perhaps most important, Zoe Ma Ma ups the ante on what constitutes quality Chinese within the Boulder city limits.

Zoe Ma Ma 2010 10th St. Boulder 303-545-MAMA

Clay’s Obscurity Corner The Chinese tamale

Like the tamale, the zong zi has thousands of variations. In the Bay Area, the versions I relished as a kid were typically pyramid-shaped, and bound up in either a lotus or banana leaf wrapper secured with string. Inside was a generous dollop of sticky rice dotted with either chunks of pork or lop cheong. Lop cheong is a fatty but incredibly tasty sausage made with pork or duck. I preferred the sausage version, as the fat would liquefy during steaming and flavor the rice. Other embellishments included steamed, salted, preserved egg and a dash of oyster sauce for garnish.

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