By Emily Kemme
If you ask Sam Graf, he’ll tell you dumplings are the perfect food. In fact, he’ll tell you he doesn’t think he’s met anybody who doesn’t like dumplings. This isn’t an idle statement. Graf will also tell you how the dumplings he cooks in his driveway never stick around for long.
Graf has spent ten years exploring dumpling houses. Growing up, he ate potstickers, typically the frozen ones. His first taste of an authentic Asian dumpling was in New York City, in a counter shop-lined by steam tables filled with dumplings. You pick out a bunch and they go into a box. From Chicago dim sum to SoHo, Graf has sampled dumplings in big cities and dumplings cooked in shacks to experience the art form. Learning along the way, it reaffirmed he was on the right track but still had to taste more.
“It’s a food that requires a tremendous amount of care — the filling, the folding, the presentation — the aesthetic is very pleasing to me.”Sam Graf, Co-owner of Big Trouble Little Dumpling
While Graf sounds like a foodie with an obsessive bent for dough-wrapped meals, what once sparked his curiosity today finds him doling out dumplings in his driveway. Seemingly out of nowhere, Big Trouble Little Dumpling was off and running. But like the pleats on a half moon dumpling, it’s never quite that simple.
Graf grew up working in kitchens; his first job was at 14, cooking foods for the hot case and little sit-down restaurant at Toddy’s, a Colorado grown grocery store. Years followed, with Graf cooking at chains and local pizza places, then he took a six year hiatus to earn a social work degree from CSU. He worked in southeast Florida and Alabama, but came back to Colorado with the thought of opening a restaurant with his brother, Jordan.
Cooking is in the Graf family blood. Jordan worked his way up to sous chef at Alizé, a French restaurant in Las Vegas owned by Chef André Rochat. With Michelin starred restaurants paving the way, stints with Sage Restaurant Group followed.
During his time living down south, Sam discovered Nashville hot chicken, and decided it was a specialty fried chicken that needed to come to Colorado. “Fort Collins didn’t have anything like it when we opened; we were the first ones to bring the idea to the area,” Graf said.
Music City Hot Chicken opened in the spring of 2016 and has been doing hot business ever since.
On the side, Sam helped out a couple of friends, preparing appetizers — namely dumplings — for their burgeoning ramen shop, RamaMama. After helping out with a few pop-up dinners, Graf said he wanted to continue the dumpling concept while growing in a new direction that would be community-based.
That’s about the time the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. The hot chicken restaurant was counter service and the Graf brothers decided to close for six weeks, leaving a restaurant full of perishables they had to get rid of. Graf admits Covid-19 was a major hiccup, but mostly a blessing in disguise.
“It was a good chance to test out a bunch of dumpling recipes. But I didn’t anticipate the amount of community support and feedback I got.”
He started with driveway food giveaways — “Kind of like a socially distanced pseudo soup kitchen cookout where they take food and then leave,” is how Graf describes it. They cooked dumplings, bahn mi sandwiches, and noodle or rice bowls three or four days a week. The driveway crowds started growing, attracted by both food quality and concept. The food is free, but donations are accepted.
“It started off hot, anywhere from 60-90 portions a day, three days a week.”
The money coming in was all over the map, from Venmo donations as large as $200 to days where serving food for 100 only brought in $30 bucks, he said. On average it ends up about $3 per portion. Good to know: there are seven dumplings to a box.
Now that Music City has reopened for take-out only, Graf is down to cooking for the driveway give-aways one day a week, serving about 150 dumpling portions. Extra funding goes towards preparing ramen broth he sells in jars, kimchi, and a spicy Korean-style pickle. Called “Gangnam style,” a kimchi and sour pickle mix with carbonation and fermentation adds fizz to the pickles. Graf suggests pairing his food with Hops Seltzer Company hops-infused, alcohol-free sparkling water. A bit like a watered down IPA, floral notes and little sweetness balance Graf’s menu of intense flavors.
So why Big Trouble Little Dumpling? The name is a riff on the John Carpenter film, Big Trouble in Little China, a goofball blend of martial arts and Chinese fantasy that’s become a cult classic. Look for the Jack Burton cheeseburger dumpling: ground beef, American cheese, shallots, sesame seeds and burger seasoning with a side of dill relish for dunking that mimicks In-N-Out Burger’s Animal Sauce. And then there’s the Gracie Law, a veggie dumpling studded with greens to match Burton’s love interest’s green eyes. Along with authentic Asian toned offerings, Graf also makes a pizza dumpling in celebration of Surf Side Seven’s reopening. For Graf, there are two keys to a beautiful dumpling. First there’s the visual: working on the folds to get the pleats right. But then there’s the texture. It can’t be mushy, Graf said. He fills his dumplings with soy nuts, tempeh, or mushrooms, among other ingredients. Whatever the theme, for Graf, staying true to authenticity is a huge element of getting it right.
To taste Graf’s playfully named works of art, follow Big Trouble Little Dumpling’s Facebook page. Make sure you get there fast — because when they’re gone, they’re all gone.
1025 Maple Street, Fort Collins
Watch for food giveaways at Big Trouble Little Dumpling on Facebook.