By Monica Parpal Stockbridge
If you dine out in Denver with any regularity, you’ve heard of Troy Guard. He’s the one behind Larimer Square’s much-lauded TAG restaurant and nearby Los Chingones taco joint. He’s the one who opened TAG Burger Bar and, later this year, a second location in the former Sunnyside Burger Bar spot. He’s the guy we just saw take home first prize at Cochon 555 in March — that traveling culinary competition centered around heritage pork.Troy Guard is, to many, a rock star here in the Denver dining community. Between his culinary innovation, his ever-growing restaurant portfolio and his ability to balance a family through it all, it seems there’s nothing he can’t do. But if you ask him about it, he’ll tell you that he’s just a regular guy.
Let’s back up to a time before Troy Guard was a Denver household name. The eldest of five kids, he grew up on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Cooking was a big part of his life long before he knew he wanted to be a professional chef. “My mom was a flight attendant, so she was gone a lot. I helped out around the house and in the kitchen,” Guard remembers. His father was — and still is — a barbecue chef on the weekends, cooking kalua pigs in underground imu pits. Guard describes a particularly special holiday tradition involving his father’s Hawaiian-style barbecue. “Every Thanksgiving, to this day, he digs a hole and tells everyone to show up at six in the morning with their turkeys. He wraps them in aluminum and chicken wire, puts them in the fire pit, and covers them with banana leaves, burlap sacks, rocks, and dirt. Six hours later, the turkeys are done.”
An homage to his father, Mister Tuna will open in mid-2016. One of Guard’s newest concepts, Mister Tuna, will open in the INDUSTRY business and community development in RiNo this summer. Somewhat contrary to its moniker, the restaurant will focus on wood-fired and rotisserie grilled meats and Mediterranean fare. The best part? In place of a raw bar, Guard plans to install a pickle bar where guests can purchase vinegar-soaked novelties like pickled Colorado peaches. “I am always trying to do things a little differently,” Guard says.
Although memories like these continue to inspire Guard’s cooking today, it wasn’t until he was 16, when his parents thought it was high time he get a job. that he found himself in a restaurant kitchen. “It was the first job I could find that was closest to my house,” he says, “so I kind of fell into it.” Guard started as a dishwasher and worked his way up, all the while admiring the gritty cooks who ruled the kitchen. “The were the renegades, the badasses,” Guard remembers. “I wanted to be like them.”
Guard continued working in restaurant kitchens through high school and junior college. He’d moved to the mainland at age seven, and at 21 decided to move back to Maui to work for culinary legend Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s. “At the time, east meets west cooking was just coming into its own,” Guard recalls. “No one else was really doing fusion cooking, which was why it was so exciting.” It was here that he experienced what he calls his “aha moment.”
“The dish was Opakapaka,” Guard says, describing the Hawaiian pink snapper swimming in a creamy beurre blanc-based Thai curry and topped with spicy stir-fried vegetables. Guard had never tasted anything like it. “I thought I knew how to cook, but I realized then that I knew nothing.”
Working at Roy’s was formative for Guard. He learned about farm-to-table cooking before it became a common term. He bought tuna and opah from fishermen right off the docks. He learned to use fresh tomatoes, onions, papayas and guavas, all from local farmers. “I had never seen or done anything like that before,” he says. “I started from scratch again, and worked my way up.”
And up he went. After three years at Roy’s on Maui, Guard moved to Hong Kong to open another location there. “If I was going to learn Asian food, why not live in Asia?” he remembers thinking. From there, he went to Tokyo, then Singapore, then New York. He was young and unfettered, moving from one adventure to the next. “I didn’t care how much I got paid,” he says. “I just cooked, and it felt really good.”
By the time he reached his early thirties, Guard found himself in Denver working with notable chefs like Richard Sandoval to open Zengo, helping to create a never-before-seen Latin American and Asian fusion restaurant concept. He later opened Nine75 and Ocean, and eventually began to consider opening a restaurant of his own in the Mile High City. “I thought, if I never try it, I’ll always say ‘what if.’ I figured that, if I failed, I could always get another job,” he says. “I went with my gut.”
In 2009, Guard opened TAG, christened with his own initials (that “A” stands for Atherton, a family name). This first restaurant aimed at achieving his goal for a chef-driven, innovative destination with inventive items like Taco Sushi and Flash Seared Hamachi with Pop Rocks, anchored by classic NY Strip and seared and confited Canadian Duck. If time is any indicator, he’s succeeded — yet he remembers being challenged immediately by the increased demand and plunging economy. “Going from chef to owner meant that everything was 10 times harder. I was constantly learning, growing, educating myself, and adapting … otherwise, I could have closed the place,” he recalls somberly. “But the next thing I knew, someone was asking me to open another spot.”
Just like that, Guard found himself laying the foundation of an empire. After TAG came TAG Raw Bar, which later morphed into Bubu — a fresh fast-casual eatery with two locations, named for the snack-worthy puffed rice treat Guard grew up eating in Hawaii. After that, Madison Street opened in Congress Park, later updated to TAG Burger Bar to focus on his winning burgers. 2013 was a big year, when Guard opened his graffitied taco joint called Los Chingones; a dessert bar called Sugarmill with partner Noah French; and an upscale, wood-fired steakhouse called Guard & Grace. He hints at expanding the latter out of state in the near future. Los Chingones has proven so successful that a second opened in DTC, and yet another is slated for Stapleton — where he’ll also open a new breakfast restaurant this year. As if that weren’t enough, he’s got a Mediterranean concept planned for River North (RiNo) in June, and a family-friendly restaurant will open its doors on the corner of 32nd Avenue and Perry Street in early 2017.
“It’s all been very organic,” says Guard of this seemingly breakneck growth. “I go by my gut. I have to believe it’s the right spot in the right neighborhood and deliver what the neighborhood needs. It’s a thoughtful process. And so far, so good.”
Through it all, Guard still sees TAG as his flagship restaurant. “We’re on Larimer Square, the best square in the city, and there’s a lot to live up to.” He goes on to say that all managers and chefs who work at his restaurants are trained in the TAG cultural values. As Guard put it, it all goes back to his Hawaiian roots.
“In Hawaii, we call it ‘ohana,” Guard explains. “Family.” He describes how he works to create an environment of humility, passion, and caring in every one of his restaurants — and at home, too, where he’s raising two kids with his wife and industry accomplice, Nikki. Even his restaurants resonate that idea of family: Guard & Grace is named for his daughter, Grace; Los Chingones is an homage to his brothers; and that Mediterranean restaurant we mentioned? “It’s going to be called Mister Tuna, after my dad’s nickname in Hawaii. He was always in the ocean, diving and fishing. The restaurant honors him, and the name makes me feel good.”
Those values of family and community are anchored deep into Guard’s psyche — and his business practices. Each year, he contributes tens of thousands of dollars to charity, and he recently recruited his management staff for a Habitat for Humanity build. On top of that, for the last six years Guard has participated in the Taste of the NFL — a charitable culinary event held every year on Super Bowl eve. And oh, do Guard’s eyes light up when he talks football. “When we got Peyton Manning, everyone got so excited. It only took one guy to get everyone talking about the Denver Broncos again,” he says. “It really only takes one person to make a difference.”
Recently, Guard harnessed that excitement and launched the Taste of the Broncos annual tasting event at Invesco Field at Mile High, with samples from more than 30 restaurants and mingling Broncos players to boot. (We can only hope that Guard’s food will be enough to keep Peyton in attendance.)
Of course, Guard’s restaurants aren’t the only booming developments in Denver. The past few years have seen unprecedented growth in the city’s restaurant offerings — Guard cites Acorn and Biju’s Little Curry Shop among his favorite places to grab a bite — along with an almost alarming increase in population and housing developments. Even from inside the TAG lobby, Guard can see the industrial cranes and towering ironwork expanding into a shrinking downtown. “Change is inevitable,” Guard says. “I embrace it. In my opinion, Denver doesn’t get enough credit for how cool and dynamic it is. I’m glad I was here to see it and be in the midst of it all.”
We’re glad you’re here, too, Troy. With chefs like you, Denver’s culinary reputation is going nowhere but up. To infinity … and beyond.
Monica Parpal Stockbridge
Monica Stockbridge is a Denver-based writer and editor who has covered the food and dining scene for publications like DiningOut magazine and Moon travel guidebooks. As a contributing writer for Colorado Hotel Magazine, Monica writes chef profiles and hotel stories that reveal inspiring mile-high experiences for visitors and locals alike.