135 East Colorado Ave, Telluride 970-728-5134
If you watch Travel Channel or Food Network programs, you know that Asian street cuisine is some of the best in the world. Whether you’re backpacking through Bangkok or staying in a Westernized Ha Noi hotel, the Asian wizards of street food offer some of the tastiest, most colorful food on that continent. Steamed Bao buns, tossed vegetables and a plethora of sushi offerings are only a few of the memorable dishes you come across during a jaunt through the region.
So in Telluride – a town thousands of miles away from the steaming food carts of southeast Asia, and thousands of feet above them – you'd assume you can’t access this beautiful pan-Asian cuisine, right?
Well, you’d be wrong. Honga’s Lotus Petal in Telluride offers Asian food cart-quality menu items, and in a beautiful restaurant to boot.
But it takes a discerning palate to create these flavors, and a well-traveled chef with a passion for the cuisine is what's needed to bring these dishes across the world to this tiny box canyon deep in the San Juans.
Enter founder and owner Honga Im, who began her career serving Telluride customers from her food cart on Main Street in 1989. She earned a reputation for serving Asian food cart classics she knew from her Korean heritage and years spent traveling across the continent.
Fast forward 24 years and Im, a self-taught entrepreneur, has transformed her much-loved food cart into an elegant and tasteful Main Street staple, complete with a calming bar and couch area downstairs (adjacent and in sight of the restaurant’s beehive of a kitchen), and a more formal dining area upstairs.
Earlier this year, Im hired head chef Jesse Yoh, also well-versed in Asia, having spent months traveling across the spine of the region. Together, they’ve fused their palates and memories to create a nearly all-new menu. Not to worry, frequent Honga’s eaters, the twice-New York Times-reviewed blackened tofu ($19) is still offered.
New menu items include seared Skuna Bay salmon from Vancouver Island, served with sesame noodles, miso glaze and shaved vegetables. A central element to this restaurant is its efforts to minimize its pollution and waste. The sushi menu, for example, doesn’t feature eel, and has reduced its tuna quantities, because of over-consumption.
“We’re an Asian restaurant, and we make Asian cuisine, but we’re trying to do things in a more conscious way,” said Im, adding that the restaurant doesn’t offer Asian beers like Tsingtao or Sapporo, because shipping these beers creates too much pollution.
“We’re in Colorado, and there are so many good breweries around this state, so we decided to offer only what’s close,” said Im.
While the Skuna Bay salmon travels hundreds of miles from Vancouver Island, Yoh said, the salmon farm from which the restaurant purchases does it right.
“We buy this salmon from a family-run operation, and their feed conversion ratio is close to one-to-one, which means to make one salmon up there, it takes the feed equivalent of one-and-a-quarter salmon,” he said. “Most fish farms, the ratio is three-to-one.” Honga’s lemon fish, another new menu item, is farmed with a one-to-one ratio.
The salmon has a crispy outer layer, encasing tender flakes of the pink fish. The miso glaze gives the cut a sweet and savory flavor, coating the fish.
Between dishes, I snacked on wok-charred sugar snap peas, which Yoh said are cooked without oil. The crunchy peas are served with crispy flakes of garlic and sesame oil, giving them a bold flavor.
“I’d find in a town in Thailand where this one cart did steamed Bao buns perfectly,” Yoh recalled while I munched on his take on the Bao bun. “That’s the thing about street food: one cart will be offer only one recipe, but they’ll be very good at that recipe,” he said.
“Some of the food over there is addicting, so Honga and I have tried to match or mimic some of the tastes we’ve found out there.”
Honga’s steamed Bao Bun ($8), served with a streak of nam prick pow, was a dish to remember. Similar to pork buns sold in dim sum restaurants, this bun felt and tasted like it could be served on a hot and humid street in central Thailand, overlooking a pristine beach or enjoyed curbside in central Bangkok. The savory bun included flakes of tender pork and a hard-boiled egg, giving it a thick, filling texture.
The vibe: Very calm atmosphere at Honga’s. Go upstairs for a bright, more formal atmosphere, or pull up a seat at the sushi bar and watch chefs turn fresh ingredients into splendid rolls. Step downstairs for an informal bar and couch seating area, where they also serve menu items.
What to order: Im’s blackened tofu is a Telluride staple, but don’t hesitate when considering some of the new menu options. From the Skuna Bay salmon ($16) to the grilled dark meat chicken ($13), it’s all good.
Open nightly at 5:30 p.m. with a happy hour from 5:30-6:30 p.m.