On Wednesday, October 28 The Ginger Pig opened its long-awaited brick and mortar in the space formerly occupied by Scratch Burrito. The restaurant expands on Natascha Hess’ menu of Thai, Chinese and Japanese classics and adds a bar program to properly complement the superb cuisine. The menu has gotten bigger and the food has gotten tastier — an impressive feat for a concept that has spent the past four years blossoming both on the truck and at Rosetta Hall.
“It was always the dream, I just never thought we could do it,” grinned Hess, who first opened The Ginger Pig as a food truck in July 2016. After a chance encounter with Carrie Baird while out to dinner at Brazen, Hess began her cooking career with a five-month stage, with Baird acting as a tutor, friend and eventual collaborator. The Top Chef contestant spent the opening four months on the truck with Hess, helping to impart a technical approach to the street-savvy selections. Four summers, four transmissions and five engines later the truck is now parked outside the restaurant, its fate yet to be determined. Not entirely new to the stationary life, The Ginger Pig spent the better part of a year at Rosetta before leaving in June to bring the Denver location to fruition.
Hess, who previously worked in sports broadcasting and divorce and family law, grew up playing Division I hockey. The way she’s built her team pays nods to her sports background, with many of the employees having been accrued along the various stages of the concept’s growth. Sous chef Megan Sufrin joined during the Rosetta days, with Andrew Edwards recently moving back from Texas specifically to lend his talents to the growing group. He and Hess had met while working together at the Rayback Collective, where he operated Edwards TX BBQ. Morgan Hiner has been with the company for three years, having put in plenty of sweat equity on the truck.
The interior itself was designed by Xan Creative‘s Melissa Friday. A massive, vivid mural of three crested firebacks composed by Julie Roberston — better known as JUURI — dances across the far wall. The custom bar is constructed of Japanese-style chestnut. A sea of red paper lanterns dangles romantically overhead. A neon sign reading “chi la ma” or “have you eaten” floats above the register. The subtle integration of a wide variety of distinct materials breathes an enormous amount of life into the compact space, blending a street food aesthetic with deliberate poise. “This place is so beautiful I was worried I couldn’t hang,” laughed Hess. Music-wise, the playlist favors Chinese rap — with artists like Bohan Phoenix and Higher Brothers lending some international grit.
As with much of Xan’s work, the elegance of the place belies the impressive focus on functionality. The large front windows can easily be converted for to-go service, should take-out only become a necessity. “This is designed to be a space that can go through a pandemic,” said Hess.
The menu still has all the favorites that have made The Ginger Pig a front range sensation, Char Siu included. However, it’s the new items where the list expresses itself most brilliantly. The Sichuan Spicy Eggplant ($13) comes with Chinese eggplant, garlic, ginger and scallion over a steaming bowl of jasmine rice. “My Chinese host mom made it three times a week. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever made,” beamed Hess. The house noodles ($13) come with stir-fried egg noodles, a spicy peanut sauce, thinly-sliced snap peas and house-smoked tofu — an utterly addictive curd that makes prodigious use of Edwards’ barbecue background. For dessert, house-made ice cream — also benefitting from Edwards’ Sweet Cow days — comes both dished and smashed into a King’s Hawaiian Roll. The Chili Vanilli sees a scoop of vanilla drenched in house-made Sichuan chili oil for one of the list’s most essential bites.
The bar program is run by Makeda Gebre, a Colorado native and rising force in imaginative cocktail making. Gebre began her career in 2013, with a four-year stint as the beverage director at the decidedly volume-oriented Bar Red. In 2017, she relocated to 54Thirty where the program leaned more craft, though ultimately wound up subsumed by its club-life aspirations. It was there she met mentor Josh Tallent, who encouraged her to enter Speed-Rack — an all-female bartending competition benefitting those impacted by breast cancer. After her first application was rejected, she redoubled her efforts and successfully joined the roster for the 2019 edition. During that time she worked at Citizen Rail before it temporarily shut down in March. Little in Gebre’s background could have predicted the degree of originality she brings to her cocktails, with The Ginger’s Pig’s succinct list neatly exemplifying a style that largely rejects precedent.
The Thai Me Up Before You Go Go ($11) is a play on Thai Tea made with Mekhong — a Thai rum — Coco Lopez and cardamom bitters in a glass atomized with absinthe then topped with a house-made coconut whip and black tea dust. The Notorious Dissent ($10) comes with Family Jones vodka, lime, tarragon, cucumber and a house-made nine-spice rim for a fitting ode to Ruth. Zero proof drinks are presented with equal zeal, with the No More Whiskey, Nick ($10) coming with Seedlip Spice 94, lemon, pear-ginger-brown sugar cordial and Aquafaba.
Despite the difficulties of opening a restaurant in this kidney stone of a year, Hess’ enthusiasm seems undimmed. In fact, her early excitement appears to have matured into carefully-considered and rightly-earned confidence. While the truck was a daydream — both unpredictable and compelling — the restaurant serves as an emblem. As the mobile kitchen was Hess’ hope in action, the space, with its well-adorned roots, is proof that The Ginger Pig has been a vision worth building.
The Ginger Pig is located at 4262 Lowell Blvd., Denver. It is open Wednesday – Sunday from 4 – 10 p.m.
All photography by Marla Keown.