Phil Simonson launched his notably experimental chocolate-making business in 2010. He toiled at commercial kitchens and farmers markets for six years before opening a storefront on East Colfax Avenue.
Originally a chocolate shop, The Chocolate Lab is now also a 24-seat restaurant and cocktail bar. All three operations hew closely to Simonson's original experimental ethos.
It all started on Valentine's Day 2008, when Simonson's husband made him a chocolate truffle. Not just any chocolate truffle, but the same chocolate truffle that Simonson now makes to the tune of 3,000 a week at The Chocolate Lab. It's silky and creamy and has since served as a canvas for 300 varieties.
The recipe is secret, and that's a bit of an understatement. "It's in my head and it's in his head and it'll never be written down anywhere," says Simonson.
Simonson has made truffles with drunken goat cheese and Vidalia onions; jalapeno peppers and Pop Rocks; Hatch green chile, street corn, cotija cheese; and habanero peppers and pineapple. "There's a lot of fun spicy concoctions," he says. "I like things to be a little more savory."
He's also collaborated with about 30 local breweries, including a Harry Potter-inspired butterbeer with Launch Pad Brewery in Aurora, and makes a wide range of other chocolate desserts and delicacies.
Of the 300 truffle recipes made by The Chocolate Lab to date, only one did not come back for a repeat performance: Dolly Parton's Fried Chicken. "It even had crispy chicken skin on the outside of it," laughs Simonson.
"We're a bunch of weirdos here," he adds. "We're pretty good about creating new flavors and bouncing them off each other."
The Chocolate Lab is the first chocolatier in Colorado (and the second shop in the country) to work with Ruby chocolate. Launched by Belgium-based Callebaut in 2017, it's naturally pink and the fourth kind of chocolate after milk, dark and white. The Chocolate Lab makes Ruby truffles with raspberries and Turkish chili pepper or strawberries and champagne.
Served in a spare space with a view of passersby and the City Park Esplanade on Colfax, lunch and dinner fare often incorporate chocolate; the Impossible Burger has a chocolate spice rub and spicy chocolate ketchup, served on a chocolate-swirled bun. "You're getting chocolate three different ways," says Simonson. Beyond sandwiches and flatbreads, entrees range from ramen to scallops.
The speakeasy-influenced bar menu includes more than 25 classic and creative cocktails, from Chocolate Manhattans and Chocolate Mimosas to the Flaming Queen (yes, it's really flaming), with scotch, rye, and blackberry, and the sparkly, smoking Love Potion #5. "We can't be a lab and not do an experiment with everything," says Simonson.
Simonson calls chocolate "a finicky medium." He uses a special, preservative-free recipe from a local chocolate supplier created with cacao beans from farms in five different countries. "It's very minimal, sugar and a little emulsifier," he says.
As The Chocolate Lab wins more and more converts, the scale of the operation has grown by leaps and bounds. "We're going through thousands of pounds of chocolate a week," says Simonson. "Christmas week, I think we went through 3,500 pounds of chocolate."
He leans in and says there's a reason he's able to thrive in such a work environment: "I'm actually not a chocolate fanatic. I think it's why I can run a successful chocolate business."