Alleyway animal: Tanuki To Go is the rising sun of Aspen takeout
March 8, 2018
WHEN TANUKI TO GO opened — Wednesday, Feb. 21, at dusk — the only exterior indication of activity in the kitchen of the former Crystal Palace was a red light glowing above the back door. On the second night, white LED lights were strung up to better draw hungry wanderers like moths to a flame in the dark alleyway behind Bootsy Bellows. By day three, lettering and a giant arrow in red duct tape stuck to the side of the building, so that seekers of savory duck ramen and crispy bison wontons knew exactly where to find the food.
Then, on day five, Sunday: In place of nightly specials jotted on brown paper (deep-fried Korean BBQ ribs; a bacon-wrapped hotdog loaded with kimchi, pickled mushrooms, cheese, and umeboshi plum spread), a different sign alluded to Tanuki To Go's swift popularity. "We so sorry!" read the scribble, framed by a heart and posted at 10 p.m. "Closing early. Out of food."
Chefs Jonathan Leichliter and Adam Norwig and business partner Kirra Sherman were optimistic that Aspenites craved gourmet yet affordable Asian street food. They were thrilled to find a venue in Bootsy Bellows, home to a fully licensed kitchen used only for occasional catered events. Conceived during a four-hour drinking session and open for business just three weeks later, Tanuki To Go sells some 14 items for takeaway until at least midnight on weekdays. The trio hoped to become busy, eventually. But they didn't anticipate a tsunami-like response almost immediately.
"It's been crazy. I was expecting we'd have 100 people in a week, but it's taken three days," Leichliter told me early on. "Adam, Kirra, and I can't keep up with the work." (Full disclosure: Norwig has been a close pal since we worked together at Burger Bar + Fish in Snowmass, where he was executive chef, in 2012.)
“The tanuki-san is the Japanese version of Dionysus or Kokopelli. He’s a raccoon-dog; the god of mischief, excess, and fun. He comes to lonely farm girls and turns into the lover they want him to be. It’s a joke among the Japanese to have that Shinto figure in their house or restaurant as a lucky symbol. At Tanuki To Go we’re not under any rules—we’re shapeshifters.”
As the name suggests (see sidebar, opposite), Tanuki To Go's menu is distinctly Asian. Crafted in unison by chefs Leichliter (executive chef of Justice Snow's for nearly its entire six-year run and private before that) and Norwig (Korean-born and Philadelphia-bred, he trained with a sushi master in Grand Junction before decamping to Snowmass eight years ago to run sushi bars there, later going private), dishes also showcase Southern, French and Colorado-stoner sensibilities.
Chinese-style buttermilk-fried chicken is served over a sweet potato bubble waffle with charred scallions, bourbon maple syrup and yuzu-roasted tomato hot sauce. Traditional shrimp and grits gets Thai treatment with flavors of tamarind and coconut curry. Ramen noodles also have an Italian affair, stirred into rich carbonara with pecorino cream, bacon and a poached egg. Lighter fare includes a salmon poke bowl with sticky rice and vegetables; miso soup with seaweed, tofu and corn; and greens with sesame-carrot dressing.
So far, most-wanted items include the smoked duck and Napa cabbage egg rolls with spicy mustard, veggie fried rice and the "Double Double Korean Trouble Burger." That last item is Insta-worthy: two smashed beef-pork patties sandwiched with American cheese, kimchi, pickled shiitake mushrooms, and secret sauce on a sweet-potato roll. (Fried duck egg: optional.)
"Jonathan is the smoker — he does the brisket," Norwig says, alluding to the Kung Pao smoked beef brisket with confit celery, red pepper and cashews. "I'm the sauce guy. Our menu is built on 11 sauces batched in huge amounts. That, plus all of the pre-prep, (is) why you get your food so fast."
Tanuki To Go has already added delivery service to keep up with demand: It's available Monday to Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m. and extends to the Aspen Golf Club, Castle Ridge and Mountain Valley.
Another surprise hit for Tanuki customers is a four-seat tasting table installed at center, opposite the pass. It's topped with a black tablecloth and open by reservation only for in-kitchen dining ($100; five plated courses; wine from the nightclub optional). Sitting in a chaotic kitchen and sampling whimsical dishes such as foie gras French toast or seared beef tataki with Mexican spices and smoked shoyu on white platters fits Tanuki's incongruous nature to a T. Next up: a classic French tasting menu, harking to both chefs' culinary training.
"It's a rock 'n' roll thing," Norwig says. "Andrew Sandler and Andy Pappani (of Bootsy Bellows) are being really supportive. This wouldn't have happened without them. It would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. How do you get a space, a kitchen that huge, in Aspen?"
In fact, the facility's ample size (plus help from peers, including loaner woks from the Caribou Club) may have been the saving grace for an emergency catering request: A buffet for 125 athletes, held last Saturday in Bootsy Bellows following the Power of Four Ski Mountaineering race.
Word around town spread so fast and was so flattering that it quickly inspired a tattletale call to Mayor Steve Skadron before the end of Tanuki's first week in business — likely from an envious restaurateur hoping to shut it down out of spite. ("They thought we weren't properly licensed or paying taxes, but we are 100 percent legitimate," Leichliter says. Indeed, confirms City of Aspen assistant finance director Pete Strecker.)
Michele Kiley, proprietress of shuttered Justice Snow's at the opposite end of the alleyway, notes that the chefs' passion project serves fresh energy to the community.
"Jonathan is a significant talent. And maybe in this very humble beginning the community will be able to appreciate that. His food was always overshadowed by the fame of the (Justice Snow's) cocktail program. I am so happy for him in this endeavor."
As long as Tanuki To Go is operating (until 2 a.m. on weekends), the door to its kitchen is open, literally. And though the Aspen dining scene is notoriously fickle — this season, especially — you'll want to catch the popup sooner rather than later. For now, Tanuki To Go is here only until April 15.
Double Double Korean Trouble might be Amanda Rae's new favorite burge r. email@example.com; @amandaraewashere