- Matthew Schniper
- Chi’s Korean japchae with glass noodles.
Africano, executive chef/proprietor at The Warehouse, introduces me to some specific dumplings he’s purchased for one of bartender Stephen Winchell’s Saturday Night Speakeasy pop-ups. A little like telling a friend the password for a Prohibition-style bar, Africano shares with me the increasingly not-so-secret word on Steven Chi — who pops up a couple nights a week at Bar-K, and periodically elsewhere, serving dumplings and noodle bowls.
“I met Steven by happenstance,” he tells me. “I stopped at Bar-K for my usual after-the-week drinks, but that night was unusual; they had food too. After a quick introduction and a heavenly waft from the bowl beside me I decided on the pork dumplings. I ended up eating all four offerings from his menu that night, ALONE!”
Any time a chef dotes on another culinarian, I take that as gospel. Like — if this guy knows his shit and says this other guy knows his shit, then if this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved, to get all Shakespearean about it.
And sure enough, a plate of tangy kimchi dumplings glistening with black vinegar and soy sauce didn’t miss a beat that Saturday night, easily giving Lucky Dumpling’s a run for their money. When I finally grab a bar stool at Bar-K some weeks later to try more dumplings in their regular habitat — tuning out trivia-night noise with a little help from a stiff and unbalanced Breckenridge Chili Chile vodka cocktail mixed with lime and beet juice and apple cider vinegar — I find a worn paper menu (cash only) detailing Chi’s flagship items. Many nights, he’ll do a one-off vegetarian or vegan dish as a special, but that’s it: just manageable with a single induction burner.
I take heart when a local art gallery owner and her friend from Cork greet Chi and sit down next to me, striking up a convo and backing up Africano’s assessment: “Oh yeah, Steven’s the shit,” he says through a somehow legitimizing Irish brogue. That becomes relevant when I order Chi’s curry chicken over rice dish, really more of an Indian-flavored concoction, and the Irish fellow compares it to the kind of easy street food found across the UK, the type chefs eat after they’ve closed their own kitchens and been out drinking.
Chi, interviewed by phone later, tells me the vibrant spicing on the dish started with him studying the back label of a spice blend he used to buy for Vietnamese pho. He procured all the same spices individually, tasting his way through to ultimately remove some, add others, and develop his own seasoning. He’s guarded about all of his exact recipes, but shares that this blend begins with a Korean curry powder, to which around a dozen spices are added, including star anise, cloves and Szechuan peppercorns. He sautés onions, garlic and ginger with carrots and potatoes, later adding chicken pieces to stew. Though simple, it’s subtly unique compared with any other curry I recall eating.
Chi, 41, was born in Taipei, Taiwan, but came to the States at age 4. He lived all over as a kid, his family having moved from New York and New Jersey to Virginia, Maryland, San Antonio and eventually Colorado Springs. His dad opened and sold restaurants along the way, and still owns two eateries in Las Vegas, where he continued on to. For many years, his father owned China Wok, just outside Fort Carson, where Steven did a little cooking and gleaned some wok skills in particular, he says. (Unrelated, but Chi also studied psychology and economics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, and says he ran his own small business, a cell phone shop, in New Jersey for a while.) Chi has been in the Springs almost a decade now, and bartended at 15C at one point.
He says he always enjoyed watching Food Network cooking shows, and though his older brother showed no interest in cooking, he intently watched his grandparents, his main caretakers, in the kitchen, learning from them. Ultimately this whole venture pays homage to them. “My food doesn’t taste like my grandma or grandpa’s food — I don’t know their recipes exactly. I just remember things,” he says, noting he never learned to make her dumpling dough or bun recipes. (Surprisingly, given the final quality, he actually buys his dumpling dough pre-made to save prep time.) He’s always cooked at home, and for gatherings, and he gained a little on-the-ground experience during a trip to Taiwan five years ago, trying to connect with some of his roots, Really these pop-ups are just a way for him to continue testing his recipes toward the goal of eventually opening a food truck, he says.
He’s tailored his menu toward his own tastes, for instance skimming the fat off his stocks in favor of lighter-bodied bowls than his grandparents preferred. He boils his dumplings instead of frying them. And, random fun fact: He puts eight creases in his dumpling folds, citing Chinese superstition of 8 being a lucky number.
- Matthew Schniper
- Each of Chi’s dumplings gets eight creases — for luck.
How this whole pop-up plan started — and has since spread by word of mouth only, sans social media or any promotion — was Chi couldn’t find a favorite item of his in the Springs: a Taiwanese spicy beef noodle soup called niu ro mian. So, he decided to be the guy to bring it here. Knowing that alone wouldn’t sustain a menu, he conceived of a few more items to launch with. He became pals with Bar-K’s owners, George Fields and Ken Binning (“KB”), who eventually encouraged him to use Bar-K as his launch pad.
That niu ro mian makes for a sensational sip and slurp, and there’s some techniques that make or break the dish, in Chi’s estimation. First, he boils the beef shanks and removes all the “gunk” that floats to the top. From there it gets a braising for extra tenderness, and carrots (a nontraditional ingredient) go in for a slight sweetness Chi likes. The broth consists of an array of sauces he doesn’t share the details on, but what “makes the dish” he says is the pickled mustard greens component. They’re a pungent condiment he buys and soaks in water and rinses to tone down “the rawness” before stir-frying with garlic and some other undisclosed aromatics. Still, a nice acidity balances the broth, which drinks deep and rich out of a plastic bowl, and not too spicy, but piquant, with thin dry-flour noodles.
Location Details Bar-K
Another Taiwanese bowl, zha jiang mien, features ground pork and shiitake mushrooms with bamboo and five-spice tofu, in a spicy black bean sauce. Chi says it’s a traditional dish and everyone has their own way to make it, but this is his best re-creation of his grandfather’s, which he likens to a Bolognese or spaghetti of Asian cuisine. He mixes his own blend of eight bottled sauces to create his final broth — again an interesting point that he’s not entirely cooking from scratch, but taking common pre-made ingredients and showing skill with culinary mixology. There’s also another proprietary spice blend in the bowl, for more dimension, while the bamboo adds crunchiness and texture, and Chi says he just likes shiitakes and wanted them incorporated. Again, it proves a damn delightful meal.
Another night I catch a vegan special, essentially Korean japchae with glass noodles, much less oily but still as sesame-forward as most renditions. Shiitakes and tofu also go into the dish, along with onions, bell peppers and spinach for a healthy-feeling bite which I enjoy with a sour side of fine homemade kimchi.
I try another cocktail to pair but once again the booze buries all nuance: Lee’s dry gin smothering the Lee creme de rose liqueur plus lime juice and peach bitters; even muddled cardamom only faintly shows up under the gin’s big botanic bite — I may as well have ordered a neat pour. I’ll probably stick to beer at my next pop-up.
Which brings us back to the coveted dumplings, this night a pork and vegetable blend with Napa cabbage, scallions and leeks, again dressed in soy and black vinegar. The filling’s seasoned with salt, pepper, a touch of sugar, oyster sauce, sesame oil and cooking wine, making for a medley of tartness and acidity to highlight the ground pork. You’d never know they came from a pre-made dough, or that Chi tends to freeze them in big batches to stay ahead of his weekly prep. They’re just delicious and satisfying to the senses. And most of all, they’ve got heart, and a story, compelling enough as told through the flavors to leave even a seasoned chef in awe.