Each Tuesday around lunchtime a line can be found forming outside the Fort Collins residence of Sam Graf. At 1 p.m., a makeshift table in the driveway starts filling up with stacks of traditional Chinese to-go boxes, each one containing seven of that week’s flavor of dumpling. The smell wafts through the neighborhood, with the morsels being steamed or otherwise finished on an outdoor stove — so long as the weather permits. Sometimes there is ramen broth, other days banh mi or rice bowls. There are usually musicians hanging around, helping to get the hundreds of individual pieces into the hands of a growing cult following. Wayne — Graf’s mastiff mix — is there, lounging by the fire pit. The dumplings themselves are given out by donation only, with a Venmo tag and a mason jar set out for cash. This is Big Trouble Little Dumpling.
Well before Big Trouble, Sam and his brother Jordan opened Music City Hot Chicken in downtown Fort Collins in 2016. The celebrated counter-service joint serves Nashville-style bird with a distinct punk rock atmosphere — a holdover from Graf’s time playing with post-punk and emo outfit Smile and a Shoeshine that also informs the newer project’s general aesthetic. The brothers grew up in Fort Collins, and Sam’s mom Jane Krueger still lives in the area, contributing watercolors for promotional material while Jordan handles all of the spraypainted murals that lace the restaurant’s walls. Since closing its doors towards the beginning of quarantine, Music City has remained to-go only since it reopened in May.
While Big Trouble’s current incarnation can certainly be attributed to COVID-19, the project has been in the works for several years. “I visited New York in 2010, where I was awakened to the world of dumplings,” said Graf. “I’ve always been really fond of dumplings, I think they’re the perfect food,” he continued. Graf introduced his dumplings over the course of several dozen pop-ups — including multiple Friday night events slinging at Pinball Jones and some others onsite at Music City.
On March 26, Graf and his rotating team — which has included appearances from Music City employee Steven Skinner and KREAM Kimchi‘s Virgil Dickerson — introduced their first home service. Initially serving on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays the project has since been pared down to a weekly. “Monday afternoon I’ll spend a couple of hours prepping,” said Graf. Dumplings are put together on-site, being folded indoors while watching ’80s movies — anything Kurt Russell, Escape From LA, Rambo, Fist of Fury, plenty of kung fu and of course Big Trouble Little China all remain in rotation. Social media has been important in developing Big Trouble’s reputation and informing diners regarding the weekly menu, though Graf says much of the interest has developed by word of mouth.
The daily totals can vary slightly, though generally, each Tuesday will see the team producing over 500 pieces — each one imbued with the casual irreverence of the cinematic source material. While dumplings aren’t by their very nature punk rock, Graf’s renditions have attitude, sharing the best qualities of the genre — loud, punchy, DIY and ultimately built to uplift the community. And much like the music, great joy is compressed into an experience that may only last minutes.
While Graf expected the attraction to at some point peter out, the project’s popularity has only continued to grow. “People were still hanging out in the ice rain,” smiled Graf. Some days Graf will donate proceeds to a BLM organization, with other week’s assets being put back into the undertaking.
Even with the offerings being fairly whimsical, there are staples. The dumplings are named after characters from the eponymous film, with the Lo Pan coming with chicken, garlic and jalapeno. The Gracie Law is filled tempeh, garlic and shitake, with the Miao Yin seeing a generous helping of Vietnamese-style beef and pork. The genre-bending selections, including the Jack Burton — a cheeseburger dumpling — and a special pizza dumpling both speak to the cuisine’s universality as the ideal vehicle for flavors unrestricted by borders. As good as the dumplings are, the Gangnam Style Ramen Broth is the real revelation — transforming the restaurant’s scraps into an inspiring base for endeavors in home soup-craft. “It’s been an easy thing to do because we have an enormous amount of trimmings from Music City,” said Graf.
While there’s certainly a great deal of allure in Big Trouble’s novel setup, Graf says he’s been speaking with realtors about the possibility of opening a brick and mortar. On top of a stable menu of dumplings, Graf plans on including a marketplace selling house-made sauces, chili crisp, pickles, kimchi and an assortment of black vinegar. It also would appear much of the same energy that permeates the house will still be on display. “I’ve toyed with the idea of having Big Trouble Little China on loop with subtitles,” said Graf. Dumplings can’t help but provide a succinct look into not only a chef’s culinary predilections but parts of their personality. Big Trouble’s have a tune to them — a richness of spirit to tie all the flavor together.
Music City Hot Chicken is located at 111 West Prospect Rd. Unit C, Fort Collins. It is open every day for delivery and pickup from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Updates for all things Big Trouble Little Dumpling can be found on its Instagram.
All photography by Adrienne Thomas.