Brian Mark was tired to build things, only to see them fall apart.
The self-taught chef and restaurant consultant worked for an investment group that would buy failing businesses, especially restaurant brands, under the auspices of fixing them and making them viable, he says. He took the job thinking it sounded interesting, much like real life Restaurant: Impossible. But he started to feel that the real motive was to squeeze all the money out of them before they shut them down anyway. Basically, what private equity firms have done to companies around the world and what hedge funds have done through bleeding media newsrooms. He didn’t want to participate in vampiric behavior, so he got up and quit one day last fall to start his own business.
But unlike many people who launch food trucks with little experience, Mark relied on extensive restaurant experience to inform what became Smoke House BBQ & Ramen. He is permanently parked at the original location east of Dueces Wild Brewery, where he partnered and also assumed the role of Vice President of Operations. Mark started in the industry at the age of 15 as a server (fun fact: just like me) at a Chinese restaurant in Colorado Springs. He had lived all over the world, in places like Japan, where his father was serving in the military, and he had grown up cooking with his mother. She is Taiwanese and could taste any dish and replicate it, he says; at his side, he develops a natural love for cooking. So it wasn’t long before work at the front of the house led him into secondary roles, such as running the kitchen at Olive Garden. But he also worked for several independent outfits, all the way to Colorado State University, where a football injury led him to think of the food and beverage industry as a career. He served as Regional Manager of Rock Bottom Brewery between 2012 and early 2017, and was part of the team that opened Oskar Blues in downtown Denver and Colorado Springs in late 2017. He helped design the menu and acted as opening general manager in Springs.
So, yeah, he had the chops. The question was what to cook.
“It boils down to the fact that I always make ramen at home,” he says. “But I also really like Lowcountry cuisine. I love seafood, and this was my brainchild for a truck. But his story goes that one night he was cooking ramen broth to freeze in batches, and he happened to have some leftover brisket on hand. He instinctively put them together, thinking, “That kinda works.” A beta version of today’s best-selling Texas Ramen bowl has been born. (Too bad it was sold out when I visited, as it had been too cold the previous days for it to properly smoke the meats.) He decided to go for it with an expanded take on three traditional ramen styles. Two didn’t sell well, so they were eventually replaced by two more fusion ramens and a vegan miso ramen, as a few appetizers (like his smoked wings he was known for at Oskar Blues) also came with sandwiches and south side elements.
Let’s start with everything-important tonkotsu ramen, which informs the base of others (except the vegan). Traditionally, there’s no tare (seasoning sauce) in the dish, he says, but most Americans prefer it with a, usually shoyu, soy sauce of some kind and quantity. . Also, pork bone broth alone is standard, but Mark prefers tossing chicken feet into his slow cooker, which also offers a decent amount of collagen when sweating bones. After long cooking, at least 24 but sometimes up to 40 hours, he says, it will all have turned into gelatin, giving the soup its defining silky texture. As desirable as that is, it’s the addition of tare that really makes for impressive flavor and a memorable meal, he believes. “It is high when you add tare.”
He makes his own, starting with a soy sauce he buys at the Asian Pacific Market, to which he adds mirin (rice wine), kombu (kelp), bonito flakes, dried shiitake mushrooms, ginger, garlic and green onions. In addition to adding the tare to pork-chicken bone broth, he uses it to marinate (overnight) his pork belly for pork chashu, which he slices into strips, instead of traditionally rolling it. , which allows better absorption of the marinade. (Some of the pickled soybeans are also salvaged and added to the next batch of tare for additional flavor.) The pork belly receives an 8-hour vacuum bath, resulting in a divinely succulent bite. The assembled tonkotsu bowl also contains sprouts, spinach and scallions, along with a 6-minute pickled egg (actually 7.5-8 minutes, due to altitude, he says) and another important meat: Asian sausage. “My mother made it,” he says. “I was coming home from school and I saw these weird sausages hanging in the window, drying.” While he knows how to craft them, it’s more viable on the truck to buy them commercially. “These taste just like his,” he says, noting the common ingredients of five-spice and ginger, among other seasonings, that infuse the bites. We also taste almost an essence of plum.
All that factored in, it’s one hell of a bowl of delicious ramen – my girlfriend remarks “I’ll drive for that” – served with premium Sun noodles “or some other brand I can’t read the label on,” says -he. (In other words, authentic.) To try a fusion bowl, I opt for the Colorado Ramen, which gets green Pueblo (or Hatch, when it’s short) chiles added to the pork-chicken broth, plus tequila-lime chicken strips, barbecue carnitas with peaches and spinach and corn. For this, he sears chicken thighs brined in cast iron with garlic oil after marinating them in a homemade taco seasoning that’s packed with cumin, chili, garlic and onion powders. and a smoky note of chipotle pepper. Some of that seasoning also goes straight into the broth, and he finishes off the chicken by cooking it with Sauza money, lime juice, and a whole head of cilantro. The bites that include it lean very southwest, which plays interestingly into the pork, which gets its own thorough preparation before meeting the noodles.
Each season, Mark buys cases of Palisade peaches to make “an epic amount” of peach butter, which he adds to pork, smoked with a mixture of hickory, oak and mesquite wood. He brushes the meat with the peach butter as it smokes, incorporating drippings, and adds more butter after it leaves the smokehouse. For this bowl, he sears pork in garlic oil and pork fat to caramelize and crisp the edges of the meat, which he calls “carnitas” although it’s not cooked as it would be. the typical carnitas, with orange juice and all. (He also serves it in tacos for the weekly Taco Tuesday specials.) The peach pork adds a touch of sweetness to the broth to partially offset the tartness of the lime and introduces the more southern flavor as a layer above it. tops from the Southwest, making for a complex and vibrant whole dish – especially considering all the flavor inherent in the broth already. Again: a bangin’ bowl of ramen.
This same pig informs The Zuckerberg sandwich, intentionally made with Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce – obviously Mark could make his own if he wanted – as a tribute to Mark Zuckerberg’s Sweet Baby Ray meme where he names the company constantly. Our brand melts some of its peach butter in the commercial sauce to at least personalize it. This pork isn’t seared like the carnitas, so it’s much smoother and creamier, contrasted by a crispy jalapeno salad on generously buttered garlic sourdough bread (coming soon locally). We dig it with a side of savory tots.
And since the melted brisket sandwich was also 86’d tonight, we order the Nashville Chicken Simmich instead. Mark says he had added chicken and Nashville waffles to his brunch menu with great success, so he expanded it into a sandwich and bowl of ramen, which I don’t try but he swears as by, noting the importance of pickles. It aims to be as close to Hattie B as possible, recipe-wise, but uses boneless thighs as a start, to make the sandwich easy to eat. He seasons the soybean oil with enough chili powder and cayenne pepper for the heat (and scoops some of that oil to brown the Nashville ramen broth) and throws the chicken in it after it leaves the deep fryer. The crispy chicken also joins the jalapeno salad on the same bun, also topped with a little horseradish mayonnaise and topped with dill pickle wheels. Great sandwich.
We find no fault with Smoke House BBQ & Ramen and leave eager to try the items we don’t have yet. Mark tells me in closing during a follow-up phone conversation that once he decided on the brasserie as his location, he knew he would need an eclectic menu so as not to bore regulars. This sent him exploring Southern dishes further than he had originally anticipated, spurred on by the popularity of Nashville chicken. So there’s more to come, including seafood porridge planned for Fridays once he gets a beefier fryer. Meanwhile, her 15-year-old son, Eli, assists her on the truck as the only employee. He’s a self-proclaimed “rock star” who is adored by many regulars at the brewery, Mark relays with a laugh.
I think of Eli working alongside his dad in that kitchen, just like Mark learned alongside his mum – although Mark says his 12-year-old boy actually got a bit more into cooking at home until now. But still, compared to the somewhat soulless job that Mark left to start working for himself, there’s a lot more building than destruction here, on a personal level. This investment of time tinkering in the kitchen pays off. Also, from what I see and taste so far, there is nothing to fix here to begin with.