Rice bowls on a roll

Gobi brings create-your-own Asian stir-fry to the 'Boat


— When Mama's Old World Pizza decided not to renew its lease earlier this year, the owners of Azteca Taqueria had an important decision to make: find a new renter or expand their business.

The choice was easy, according to co-owner Keith Hicks.

"The space was available and we had the lease," Hicks said Thursday. "We can screw up a business as good as anybody."

So on June 13, Hicks and fellow Azteca owners Jim Ruggiero and Jonas Gabriel officially opened The Gobi Mongolian Grill.

A venture into Asian cuisine, Gobi patrons select a variety of ingredients -- from shrimp, beef, chicken and tofu to bamboo shoots, garlic, pineapple and 18 other fresh vegetables, fruits and spices -- that are stir-fried together with one of nine sauces and served hot in a bowl with jasmine rice, brown rice or udon noodles.

The rice- and noodle-bowl phenomenon is hardly new, but it's a genre the owners felt would work well in Steamboat Springs.

"We've had out-of-town friends with experience with Mongolian grills tell us they thought it would be good for Steamboat," Ruggiero said.

Hicks, however, jokingly offered up a different reason for the Mongolian theme.

"We were getting sick of eating beans and rice," Hicks said, alluding to the Azteca's Mexican fare. "We wanted to have some fresh vegetables and sauces."

Ruggiero and Hicks opened Azteca in July 1999. Both Azteca and Gobi are located on the first floor of the former Bucking Rainbow Building at the corner of Fourth Street and Lincoln Avenue. The building is owned by a Milwaukee, company.

Both restaurants attract like-minded customers, Ruggiero said.

"We aim toward the local lunch crowd, the people who have limited time for lunch," he said.

Customers are handed empty bowls and invited to pile them high with whatever vegetables, fruits and spices are available at the serve-yourself bar.

The bowl is handed back to Gobi employees, who stir-fry the ingredients and sauce together for about two minutes, Ruggiero said.

By providing affordable, fast and customized eating options for its customers, Gobi is sticking with the same philosophy that has made Azteca a success, Ruggiero said.

While the owners had worried Gobi would take away business from Azteca, they said Gobi is already bringing in a new customer base.

"So far we're seeing enough new faces that the appeal is different -- it's appealing to a different crowd," Ruggiero said. "We haven't seen a serious crimp in Azteca's revenue."

Grand-opening business at Gobi's doubled what Azteca experienced in its first day of operations four years ago, the owners said.

"We were really excited about the turnout we had on the first day," Ruggiero said.

But that doesn't mean there wasn't a learning curve with the new restaurant.

Hicks, Ruggiero and Gabriel quickly learned phone orders don't work when customers have so many ingredients to choose from.

"The first person that called wanted 12 orders," Gabriel said. Gobi has since stopped accepting phone orders.

The first several days of business also enabled the owners to fine tune Gobi's homemade sauces, which include chili ginger, curry, sesame, spicy peanut, sweet-sour and teriyaki.

With two restaurants and years of restaurant experience among them, Hicks, Ruggiero and Gabriel couldn't be more pleased with the way things are going.

"Things are constantly evolving," Ruggiero said. "We might even have entertainment on the deck this summer."

"It's tough work, but it's rewarding, especially when you're in ownership," Hicks said. "Once you're in the restaurant business, it's hard to get away."

The Gobi Mongolian Grill is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com


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