As the daughter of immigrants who opened a Chinese restaurant in Boston, Joanne Liu learned about work ethic, perseverance and her culture. Her life revolved around food.
She also learned efficiency, apparently. Because in two months, Liu organized a small group of the Denver-area Asian American Pacific Islander food and beverage industry and put together the inaugural Mile High Asian Food Week. The five-day event starts today.
Find tips on how to navigate Asian Food Week below. Jump there now.
While not every local Asian restaurant is participating — many oldies but goodies are missing — organizers say this is Year One. They hope awareness grows among customers and businesses because even as different as the Asian community is, food is something everyone has in common.
“It’s how I like to celebrate being Asian,” said Liu, an educator who now lives in Denver and started Asian Girls Ignite. “I get to eat really good food.”
The challenging years of the pandemic and the rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community were other reasons compelling Liu to create an event to highlight the joy of Asian culture, a time to heal. Together. It probably help that she knew chefs like Penelope Wong of Yuan Wonton and Julia Rivera, owner of Mukja food truck. Liu’s younger brother Chef Ken Wan is a founder of Meta Asian Kitchen in Denver. Her vision was to attract 10 to 15 food purveyors and provide exposure and business for AAPI restaurants and the food industry.
There are now more than 50 businesses participating across the Denver metro. An all-volunteer crew helped promote the event and coordinate the restaurants, food trucks, breweries and boba shops and others to offer discounts or secret menu items (Pho French Dip from Ace Eat Serve or Ube Red Bean Sesame Balls at Tí Cafe, anyone?). Aurora-based Asian Avenue magazine became a sponsor last month. The Colorado Restaurant Association, which usually reserves resources for its own restaurant week, reached out to offer support.
LEFT: The Pork Roti at Lucky Noodles wraps pork belly in an Indian roti bread wrapper. RIGHT: The Hangover Wonton Soup at Lucky Noodles is available until it runs out because it takes hours to make the broth. (Photos by Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
TOP: The Pork Roti at Lucky Noodles wraps pork belly in an Indian roti bread wrapper. BOTTOM: The Hangover Wonton Soup at Lucky Noodles is available until it runs out because it takes hours to make the broth. (Photos by Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
“As a nonprofit trade organization, the Colorado Restaurant Association doesn’t typically sponsor local community events like Mile High Asian Food Week, but we were very excited to see it launch and are delighted to be able to support the participating restaurants in any way possible,” spokeswoman Denise Mickelsen said.
New food, new eaters
There’s definitely a growing interest in Asian food, but it’s likely not just due to the state’s growing AAPI population, increasing from 3.8% in 2010 to 5.3% of all Coloradans as of the 2022 census estimate.
It’s also the gastrophiles who like to talk about food online, share photos and videos of food and meet with like-minded stomachs at local restaurants. The people who talk about their next meal while still eating their current one. Just ask the folks behind Crazy Hungry Asians Colorado, a Facebook group that started with the four friends in June 2021. As of Tuesday, there were more than 11,400 members.
“For us, we started the group because we wanted a community of folks who loved and who wanted to seek out good Asian food just like we do,” said Deepika Kandasamy, a founder and moderator. “I’m assuming it’s popping up on Facebook because sometimes we look at the numbers and we’re like, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize we’re this big now.’”
Even the quartet of friends haven’t been everywhere. And they can’t get to all the places on the list, though they’re heading to Lucky Noodles in Denver on Friday.
“It should be more than one week,” said Alison Perico, another moderator. “It’s really hard to choose. My recommendation is to try something different. Try something new. Maybe go a little bit farther than you would normally drive.”
Over in Centennial, CoArk Collective, a new mostly Korean cuisine food hall, is all in with the new food event. It put together packages featuring a selection of food from its nine food vendors, from the dessert package, with strawberry croffles and rice slushies, to the “street” package, with tokbuckii rice cakes, mini kimbap and Korean-style fried chicken in a box. But if you want to reserve, better do it soon. Only 50 packages are available per day.
And if you call the number listed for RSVPs, you’ll reach Sean Choi, who handles publicity for the collective and also operates 3456 Tea, with symbols similar to the South Korean flag.
“It happened so quickly, we didn’t have a chance to set up the reservation system yet,” said Choi, who left the tech industry to start brewing specialty teas. “From a vendor’s perspective, since we have 230-plus items here from all the different vendors, we wanted to create a package where people can easily just try things out at a pretty significant discount compared to purchasing it individually.”
LEFT: The CoArk Collective in Centennial is a new food hall with nine vendors. Most serve Korean food. RIGHT: A worker at the food hall cooks bulgogi, a thinly-sliced marinated strips of beef grilled with onions and used in all sorts of Korean dishes. (Photos by Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
Changing times: A similar event in 2010
Annie Guo VanDan, editor of Asian Avenue magazine, applauds the effort to bring more attention to the variety of Asian food options in the metro area. The magazine has long shared the stories of chefs and owners. It’s a great starting point to learn more about the area’s Asian food scene.
“We’re still such a small minority group here that a lot of times we’re just trying to make our culture more accessible and approachable,” VanDan said. “Food is like that first step to learning more about Asian communities here.”
VanDan, who started the magazine in 2006 with her mom, a journalist from Taiwan, tried to start a recurring Asian food fest more than a decade ago. In 2010, the publication partnered with the Asian Chamber of Commerce to launch Asian Restaurant Month. Prix fixe menu items were $16.80, a lucky set of numbers in Chinese culture. It never had a second year.
“A lot of the restaurants have closed since then,” VanDan said. “It was hard to sustain it. … There was no social media. We were printing posters. And the restaurants, a lot of them didn’t even use email. It was really hard to keep it going because at that time, there was so much more effort versus now.”
Organizers today rely heavily on Instagram, where digital foodies flock to share photos, videos, comments and likes. Many vendors have a home there, too, and are sharing secret menus, discounts and their own photos and videos. Modern tools like Google forms made it simple and free to accept applications. Only vendors who applied but didn’t complete the registration were excluded.
“It feels like a lot of the participating vendors are second and third generation. There’s a lot fewer who are first-generation immigrant business owners. And that’s something we’ve been thinking about for next year, too. How do we provide a little bit more support because there are language and cultural barriers,” VanDan said. “That’s a challenge that Asian Avenue has when reaching out to them to just be profiled in the magazine. Sometimes, they are reluctant because they think it comes with some kind of obligation.”
Participation in Asian Food Week is free for all vendors. None of the original restaurants from the 2010 event are participating in Asian Food Week.
Mas Torito, who runs the family-owned Kokoro restaurants in Denver and Arvada, understands the dilemma with the older generation. His family started the Japanese ramen and rice bowl restaurant in 1986 when he was 6. He took over in 2008. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that he became more aware of the struggles older Asian restaurateurs faced.
“The idea of being more involved with the community wasn’t really strong (among older generations). It was just kind of like you do your own business. You run your own company and that was that,” Torito said. “The pandemic changed things quite a bit.”
When personal protection equipment became a requirement during COVID, it was tough for some restaurants to get enough. But those who had some extra did share with others. He became more active himself, trying to help older restaurateurs build a website, use social media or update their point-of-sale system. It’s still not easy to convince some long-time proprietors, as many are still skeptical of competitors. Asian Food Week could help improve relationships between businesses and customers.
“If we could foster that kind of thing all the time, that would be awesome,” said Torito, who’s looking forward to the week with a set menu of a bowl, sushi and drink for $16. “That Facebook page is awesome. This restaurant week is awesome. And hopefully that gets in some of the minds of these older restaurateurs to understand that we’re trying to help.”
TIPS: How to approach Asian Food Week
Even for the pros, there is probably a new flavor or place to try at the inaugural event, which runs through Feb. 26. “You could eat constantly for the entire weekend and still not be done,” said Alison Perico, who helped start Crazy Hungry Asians Colorado on Facebook. Here are tips from those who know:
- Start with milehighafw.com to view food options.
- Check the AFW special discounts and secret menus.
- Scan the photos to see what appeals to your stomach. Most businesses have Instagram accounts with tantalizing images.
- Make reservations. Some of the food trucks or special menu items are already sold out.
- Find a place close to home, find a place farther from home. There’s no right or wrong here. Go with your gut.
- Unsure of a dish? Ask the restaurant or the public Facebook group of Crazy Hungry Asians Colorado.