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Jazzed-up diner fare sings at new north-Boulder eatery

By John Lehndorff | Photos by Phil Mumford

For Ella Fitzgerald, a song’s simple melody was just a starting place from which to soar, scat and sing jazz variations on a theme.

Edwin Zoe feels that way about chicken-fried steak. Where others saw a forgettable deep-fried slab with instant mashers and a canned-gravy puddle, he envisioned an elevated entrée. Replacing the usual round steak is juicy, tenderized beef short-rib meat. Coated in crumbs and pan-fried, it’s fork tender and perfect with chunky, buttery mashed potatoes and peppered white gravy.

Match the dish with a glass of good pinot noir and you understand why Zoe calls his recently opened Ella a “fine diner.“ The north-Boulder eatery fills the space next to Ideal Market that was previously occupied by Radda Trattoria and Masa Grill. Zoe retained Radda’s modern look, the chat-friendly semicircular bar and the well-shaded patio.

Creating a diner had been on his bucket list of restaurant ideas for a long time, he says, because the menus are built on familiar dishes cherry-picked from various cuisines. “I wanted to do homestyle food made with great ingredients and techniques,” Zoe says.

He took a simple, innocent approach to building a menu, especially for a tech-savvy entrepreneur who, if he wanted to, could crunch big data to discern optimal dishes and ingredients. Instead, he went with his heart. He filled the menu with things he likes to eat. “It’s the story of my American life,” Zoe says. 

Three Square Meals

Ella’s breakfast menu includes skillets, omelettes, brioche French toast ($8.75) and green-goddess eggs Benedict with avocado and sautéed greens ($9.50).

Lunch and dinner offer a wild boar, buffalo and beef lasagna ($10.75) and a sandwich filled with roast beef, mozzarella, sautéed onion and horseradish with jus for dipping ($11.50). 

For his fish and chips ($11.95), Zoe dips mild Alaskan cod in a peppery batter made with gluten-free beer from Boulder’s New Planet Brewery, siding it with tartar sauce and thin waffle chips.

He uses the wood-fired oven inherited from Radda to roast and brown juicy, Colorado-raised Redbird chickens, and to bake classic pizzas ($9-$14) crowned with Polidori Italian sausage, imported San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and herbs.

He approached his largely Mexican kitchen staff and asked them to make real tacos, huevos rancheros and green chile. He offers a free taco with every happy-hour beverage. “I told the crew: ‘Make me a taco that you would eat,’” he says. They protested that it would be too hot, but he ended up with a serious pork-carnitas taco on a warm corn tortilla with a bit of a bite.

Ella’s substantial huevos rancheros ($9.50) is topped with a thoroughly authentic green-chile sauce packed with pork, onions, and a potent purée of roasted serranos, jalapeños and tomatillos.

Hungarian Specialties

Zoe asked Ildi, his Hungarian mother-in-law, to help him re-create some favorite dishes she had served him in her home, including a spot-on matzo-ball soup ($6.50). Her fall-off-the-bone chicken paprikash ($10.75) is made using Redbird poultry. The bird, seasoned with lots of mild sweet paprika, creates a sauce with the dollop of sour cream that is a perfect topping for tender little nokedli dumplings. 

Like all good diners, Ella always has sweet temptations ($5.50-$7.50). Diners can stop in for a slab of buttercream-frosted, chocolate-hazelnut Dobos torte, a slice of Hungarian cream cake, or a booze-infused ice cream shake. 

Ella is named in part for Ella Fitzgerald, the first singer the restaurateur fell in love with when he moved to the United States from Taiwan. He came to Boulder in 1982 to attend the University of Colorado to study international business. After a career in computers, he launched Zoe Ma Ma in 2010 with his mother to introduce Chinese street food in downtown Boulder. (It’s been a hit, and a second Zoe Ma Ma is set to open next door to Denver’s revitalized Union Station.)

“I love coming to work to cook,” Zoe says. And becoming the father of a young daughter has changed his culinary perspective: “I’m interested in food now that’s a little simpler, more honest and less contrived.”

The menu offers many lighter dishes, and Zoe doesn’t apologize for serving some high-caloric favorites. He figures you’re better off eating chicken-fried steak “made from scratch and not with processed stuff.”

Later in the evening Ella becomes a neighborhood watering hole showcasing a well-chosen wine, craft brew and artisan liquor list. It fits with Zoe’s larger vision.

“I like what a diner represents as a community gathering spot,” he says.