Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Boa mashes Asian, Mexican cuisine in cross-cultural menu
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Boa mashes Asian, Mexican cuisine in cross-cultural menu

Since the fastest-growing population in the United States is mixed-race and we live in an increasingly global and multicultural world, it makes perfect sense that a restaurant like Boa on West 32nd would open, and serve a mashup of Mexican and various Asian cuisines.

Erin and I got to sample some of Boa’s cooking recently, when we were asked by Asian Avenue magazine to write up one of their ‘Restaurant Peek” features on the eatery. We met photographer ace Brandon Iwamoto there and tasted the food and spoke with the owners on an afternoon interrupted by a tornado warning and a twister curling down from the sky in the neighborhood (it never touched down).

Inside, the restaurant reflected none of the dark fury of the weather outside (except when the entire staff and all the customers ran out in the street to gape at the funnel cloud).

The small, comfy eatery is located in the heart of the bustling, hip Highlands business district off 32nd and Lowell, and welcomes passersby who look puzzled at the combination of Asian and Latin foods. When they give it a try, say the co-owners and chefs, Julie Villafana and Braydon Wong, they like it.

Some regular customers mix and match the cuisines, while others switch back and forth with each visit. Even the ones who come in and say they prefer one cuisine eventually try the other, Villafana says.

The business partners met at their “day job” at the Immigration Detention Facility. Wong, who was born in Malaysia, operated a Chinese restaurant in Aurora for years; Villafana grew up with New Mexico-style family cooking. They decided to go into business together, and were looking for a restaurant space downtown when Villafana’s brother, Jesse, saw a vacant spot in the Highlands neighborhood.

The space fit the restaurateurs’ vision and Boa opened last November, with Jesse and Villafana’s Korean American partner, Liz Christensen, providing friendly and helpful service. Like the food, the atmosphere and service are all about being inviting and inclusive.

The cross-cultural cooking is the restaurant’s main attraction. The menu is split into “East” and “West” sections for both appetizers and entrees, and the two collide wonderfully in the “Fusion” entrees, which include sopapillas stuffed with Korean barbecued bulgogi beef, or tacos filled with Malaysian Rendang beef or chicken.

The Asian entrees features familiar flavors such as Szechuan, Mandarin, Mongolian and Korean (there’s a bibimbap that we’ll have to try next time); the Mexican dishes includes blue corn enchilada, carne asada tacos, burriots and chimichangas.

On our visit we were served the East-West Combo appetizer, which has egg rolls, pot stickers, satay skewers, taquitos and quesadillas with chips and salsa, which set the stage for the rest of the meal.

We were knocked out by the Mexican side dishes that Villafana cooked up for us: Fideo, a Mexican soup with vermicelli and green chile and tomato, and Calabacitas, satueed zucchini and corn with green chile. Both were to die for, to use a phrase that Pat Miller, better known as Denver’s doyen of dining, “Gabby Gourmet” uses.

For our entrees, we had Malaysian Rendang chicken (shown in the photo above), a flavorful dish featuring a cumin-and-coconut-milk-based sauce that’s similar to Thai curries; a huge and tasty Poblano Relleno, stuffed with cheese, zucchini and corn; and the Korean BBQ Sopapilla. The sopapilla is stuffed with bulgogi, Korean marinated barbecued beef.

In concept, it’s like the famous Kogi BBQ Truck, an LA sensation that serves a mashup of Korean and Mexican foods in trucks that are just like the taco trucks that serve up tasty greasy food at construction sites and downtown locales in LA. (It’s so popular that when the Kogi folks post their upcoming whereabouts on twitter, hundreds of people line up in advance.) When we were in LA this spring for a wedding, we ordered from the Kogi truck and loved out kimchee quesadillas and bulgogi-filled burritos.

Boa isn’t quite as funky as the Kogi BBQ Truck, but it’s funky enough for Denver. It’s a cool, new idea, and I hope it catches on.

Ultimately, even though people might be skeptical, the cultures don’t clash at all; in fact, the combination brings out the similarities in both, with the emphasis on fresh ingredients, sauces and flavors such as cilantro, with the fare all home-cooked fresh as meals are ordered.

Wong and Villafana share the grill in the restaurant’s small kitchen, with Villafana taking up one end of a grill and pots of green chile and soup, and Wong at the other end with a wok for stir-frying the Asian recipes, next to his grill space.

The two work together well, and they craft a unique flavor combination that results in delicious meals served up in an unpretentious and comfortable atmosphere. It has all the perfect personality for its Highland locale – northwest Denver lucked out when Boa settled there instead of downtown.

We can’t wait to go back and try the rest of the menu.