It’s been a fairly uncommon practice in 2020 for any restaurant to push up its opening date. For Kitsune — the bento and izakaya concept currently serving from the kitchen at American Bonded — the iron felt hottest in March. So chefs Marcus Eng and Sam Soell — who had been cooking together at Tavernetta for roughly a year — struck out on their own, developing a menu that serves mostly local ingredients, vividly arranged and served in chic balsa wood and rice paper boxes. The duo had originally been planning to introduce Kitsune over Memorial Day, though the formal closure of indoor dining prompted them to push the ideal to-go concept up, opening to well-deserved acclaim even in the thick of the turbulence. While the format could easily suggest that Kitsune is either a pop-up or pivot, the project is the fully fleshed-out realization of daydreams, pipe dreams, planning and ultimately phenomenal execution. “It’s been a long, strung-out idea,” said Soell.
Both chefs are from Bailey, Colorado — though the 10-year gap in age between Eng and Soell found their culinary and personal journeys intersecting for the first time at Tavernetta. Eng has been active across some of Denver’s most-lauded kitchens — operating as executive chef at the original Way Back, helping to open Acorn and doing a stint at The Nickel before ultimately landing at Tavernetta. He currently teaches at Emily Griffith Technical College’s Culinary Quickstart Program, instructing students aged from 17 – 70 on culinary basics and techniques. Soell got his start at Conifer’s own Brooks Palace Tavern before attending Auguste Escoffier School Of Culinary Arts in Boulder while cutting his teeth at the local DoubleTree Hotel. Most recently he worked at Morimoto Maui, refining his skills across Japanese-Hawaiian fine dining before returning to Denver and taking his latest position with the Frasca Hospitality Group.
Ahead of Kitsune’s opening, Eng had been toying with the idea well before he and Soell took steps to actually make it materialize. Built around ekiben or train-boxes, the dishes take the shape of the kind of convenient, multi-pronged meals ubiquitous in Japanese train travel. “That’d be kinda cool if Union Station had an ekiben station,” said Eng. When American Grind decided to vacate American Bonded’s kitchen, Eng and Soell were quick to spring at the opportunity to utilize the space. Since opening in March for to-go and in-house delivery, Kitsune expanded its menu to include izakaya snacks when the bar reopened at the end of May. “We’re here until they hike up the rent,” smiled Eng.
Both chefs appear to have a deep aversion to any kind of stagnation. “It’s all ephemeral. Most of the time we’ll run a box until we’re out of the products,” said Eng. “I’d like to show these guys some cool ingredients and cool techniques. I’d like to cater to Denver’s most adventurous eaters,” he continued. While there is routinely plenty of imagination, occasionally the options will step further towards the uncharted, including boxes highlighting geoduck or sweetbread karaage. Both chefs collaborate and enjoy friendly competition in the kitchen, with Eng leading much of the culinary direction and Soell handling branding and social media. “I do most of the creative stuff, Sam does a good job of making sure I don’t get sued,” laughed Eng. The use of local and organic ingredients is plain to see, with purveyors including Golden Organics, Buckner Family Farm, Fresh Guys and the Union Station Farmers’ Markets frequently making an appearance.
On any given day, the menu will usually feature roughly five boxes. While there’s plenty of diversity across the options, each box is built to include “something pickled, something simmered, something fried and something raw,” said Eng. The Butter Warmed Scallops ($17) come lightly smoked over peach wood with local herbs, beech mushrooms, Meyer lemon and a “not insubstantial amount of butter,” said Eng. The Mapo Tofu ($15) is some of the best in the city, coming topped with sesame and green onion and, like all the boxes, being joined by mixed vegetables, fruit and house-made tamago. “I like to cook a lot of homestyle Chinese food because… I’m Chinese,” said Eng with a dry smile. To further up the poise, each box is topped with an ornate label — designed by Taos artist Dae Ann Knight — that can be used as origami paper. “It’s an elegant meal but it’s simultaneously very casual,” said Eng. The in-house bar menu features a rotating set of more rich selections including bulgogi sliders. “It’s way sluttier,” said Eng.
Even as Eng and Soell have mastered the concept’s general underpinnings, Kitsune beams in its deliberate plasticity. Last week it hosted a mussels and fries pop-up, with a recent trip to Oaxaca potentially informing future menus. For the chefs, upcoming plans remain intentionally vague, though two-person boxes and possible collaborations with beer or spirit pairings have been in consideration. In any case, Kitsune’s amorphous vision has everything in place to continue producing exceptional results regardless of the particular daily guise.
Kitsune is located in American Bonded at 2706 Larimer St., Denver. It is open every day for to-go from 12 p.m. – 9 p.m., and for dine-in from 4 p.m. – 9 p.m.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.