Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Swimming in Thai Flavor

I never cruise through Aurora without spotting 15 places I want to try; it was a new East African joint that turned my head recently on the way to meet my pals/partners in chow crime Denver on a Spit (DOAS) & Mantonat at Thai Flavor, which sits in a strip mall next to a West African place (that happens to make amazing meat pies), the Ghanian-owned African Grill & Bar. As Mantonat puts it, “Peoria Blvd. is a kind of Bizarro World version of west Denver’s Federal Blvd. In fact, Thai Flavor lines up directly on an east-west axis with the the block of restaurants on Federal that I’ve been frequenting recently for Westword [see above link], as if the strip mall it’s located in is a slightly distorted mirror image of the row that includes Hong Kong BBQ or Lao Wang Noodle House.”

I’d like to say that, once inside, I stopped grasping at the riches around me & focused on the task at hand, but we all admitted afterward that we were a bit distracted—partly by DOAS’s hilarious little twin squirmers, but primarily because we were seated at a table near the entrance in the middle of the room in broad daylight. It’s always hard for me to concentrate when I feel like I’m circling my wagons on the prairie. (I definitely get that old urban myth about mobsters who insist on sitting with their backs to the wall.) Though the adorably gregarious old guy who, I assume, was the owner helped to make us feel at home, if we’d been concentrating more we might have sampled a broader selection; instead “we ended up with what seemed like several plates featuring the seafood mix—shrimp, scored curls of squid, & mussels,” as Mantonat observed later, adding that “the pacing of the dishes threw me off; I think I must have eaten half of your order before my curry came out and we realized that we needed to swap plates.” (What a gentleman. It was the other way around—I who took a big chunk out of his food before clarity set in.)

Then again, seafood is clearly the star here anyway, comprising Thai Flavor’s entire list of house specialties—with good reason. They do it right. Mussels in particular stood out: plump, juicy, perfectly cooked—& able to shine in every instance thanks to the kitchen’s light touch. The key difference between mediocre & quality Thai, in my book, is that the latter is surprisingly subtle. Thai-cooking experts often refer to the importance of balance between elements—sweet, spicy, salty, sour, bitter—and while I agree with that, I’d add that the ideal result is above all refreshing; the brushstrokes aren’t as bold as they are in, say, the neighboring cuisines of Malaysia/Indonesia/Singapore. Seemed to me Thai Flavor nailed that distinction in almost all the dishes we tried: from the steamed mussels with a vibrant dipping sauce—not the ubiquitous, neon-pink, sweet-chili stuff but a simple blend of fish sauce, citrus, & fresh chilies—

to Mantonat’s jungle curry

& the mixed stir-fry that both DOAS & I ordered (though neither of us can remember exactly what it was called—it doesn’t appear to be listed here),

which were all exceptionally light, fresh, crisp, & peppery. The seasonings highlighted the main ingredients rather than the other way around. Mantonat had that impression too: “The entrées showcased a more elegant side of Thai cooking; the sauces seemed more broth-based & less reliant on coconut milk or massive hits of spice blends. Despite ordering my curry ‘Thai hot,’ I never approached that moment of terror when you realize your tastebuds are being tortured but your brain has yet to receive the full impact (although I have been working on building my tolerance, much as the Dread Pirate Roberts slowly built up an immunity to iocane powder). The vegetables were definitely allowed to speak for themselves. I’m a fan of huge flavors that make me sweat & reach for a beer, but occasionally I like to be reminded that something as small as a green peppercorn can lend its little voice without completely overwhelming a dish, adding just a hint of peppery zing & a caper-like pop.”

DOAS, for his part, felt chili spice was a little underutilized in the kitchen, so he covetd the condiment caddy that gave me the sweats just to look at: “For an extra fun kick, the jar with the mix of red & green sliced peppers was tremendously hot, so I did get that familiar burn that builds and builds past heat through pain to the sort of numbed pleasure-state that I strive for when I eat Thai.”

I was likewise enamored with the accompaniment to the fish cakes, which I could’ve eaten by itself—again, I assume lime juice & fish sauce formed the base, but it was also chock-full of red onion, cucumber, cilantro, & crushed peanuts. I don’t think the fish cakes themselves

or the fried catfish

were quite as successful, simply because they weren’t quite hot enough, temperature-wise, to remain crisp for long. The potential was there, though—both dishes were put together well, the coating was deft, the flavors clear & bright.

As for the marinated-eggplant salad with shrimp, strips of sweet omelet, red onion, & basil,

I’d had it once before & remembered it vividly; the follow-up left no doubt in my mind that it’s the masterpiece here. It’s so colorful & unusual: by turns tangy & delicate, sharp & soft, crunchy & silken-textured.

For DOAS’s complete take on our oceanic extravaganza—& more comments from Mantonat—click here.

Thai Flavor on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Red Curry at Thai Monkey Club

Though I like Phat Thai rather more than does the Westword’s outgoing Laura Shunk (while taking to heart her point that key spicing is handled in too desultory a fashion by the kitchen, which thereby forces you to do the dirty work via tableside condiments), I definitely agree with her that Thai Monkey Club has a much more natural & confident handle on the balance between flavor elements that is the hallmark of Southeast Asian & particularly Thai cuisine.

This newish Baker District hole in the wall rates the heat of its dishes on a scale of 1 to 6; the Director & I, having relatively combustion-proof palates, went (via delivery) for 4s and 5s—which a) seemed pretty much the same & b) provided fair warning as to the permanent damage that might be done to tongue & stomach by 6.

So yes, this stuff is packing heat, in the form of little chili-pistols that spray your insides with pockmarks of pain & pleasure. But if mere cheap thrills were all it had to offer, I wouldn’t have been half so impressed; rather, homestyle savvy gave each dish its clear, bright due (& hue). That much was true of classic green papaya salad (pictured bottom, heat level 5), a refreshingly precise blend (once mixed together on the spot) of crunchy raw cabbage & salted peanuts; slivers of surprisingly ripe tomato & carrot; & julienned strands of the namesake ingredient that, neither woody nor slimy, evoked tart vegetable spaghetti. In this case, traditional fish-sauce-based dressing delivered the heat as well as the soothing sweet (typically palm sugar) & citrus sour (i.e. lime juice) to highlight the papaya.

The Director’s green curry with bamboo, basil, globe eggplant, snow peas, broccoli & pork (top left), though supposedly spicier than mine at heat level 5, was certainly a bit sweeter and creamier—but not thick or clunky; the medium is the message, after all, & what the curry transmitted rather than garbled was the integrity of the humble ingredients within—their nice, nearly uniform bite size; their crisp bite, period; their clean green freshness.

Still, it was my seafood red curry (top right) with more bamboo, basil & globe eggplant plus carrots, baby corn. shrimp, scallop & squid (&, okay, maybe krab?) that, while thoroughly & lastingly spicy in its medium-thick soupiness, was the edible equivalent of looking at the ocean in sunlight & seeing each wave glint in turn—the intense purity of flavor washed over you in intervals.

Given, then, how adept Thai Monkey Club is at exhilarating curries, I’m chomping at the bit to try their noodles next. But by the same token, I’m also tearing a bit at the missed opportunities of the straightforward menu: a lesser-known regional specialty or two would be a dreamy bone to throw at the likes of us chowhounds.

Thai Monkey Club on Urbanspoon

 

Phat Thai Hits the Sweet (& Spicy, Salty, Sour, Green) Spot

One can’t help but feel a twinge of reverse ethnocentrism upon entering Phat Thai, can one? It sprawls, it gleams, it caters to the yoga-lean leisure class of Cherry Creek, & in short it’s the squeaky-clean antithesis of the tiny, gritty holes in the wall wherein most of us first fell for Thai food. Although the concept of authenticity is ever nebulous, each of the world’s cuisines does, at any given point in history, possess certain core characteristics by which it can be identified; Carbondale-based chef-owner Mark Fischer’s first Denver outpost looks a little too much like a glorified Chipotle for the comfort of one who fears that a hallmark of Thai cookery—its careful balance among spicy, salty, sour, sweet & herbaceous—may not translate against the paradoxically yet blandly colorful backdrop.

But that same one has hopefully done enough homework to know that Fischer’s no dummy—that Fischer himself would have done his homework before opening the first Phat Thai, & that even if he might put a contemporary twist on his menu here, a local spin there, & run a thread of flexibility to suit all manner of palates throughout, he’d remain essentially true to the tenets of the cuisine. That is in fact the case.

Indeed, while I’m inclined to adore the Soup Nazis of the world myself, one could argue that Thai cookery’s aforementioned hallmark is a matter of, if not compromise exactly, subjectivity rather than precision—what’s “balanced” to someone who’s sensitive to salt is going to differ from what’s balanced to a chile-head. In that light, I’m all for the table caddies equipped with containers of sugar, crushed red pepper, vinegar infused with sweet red pepper, & housemade nam pla, so that diners can doctor their dishes as they see fit—dishes that are already darn well balanced. Not that I didn’t add some seasonings here & there, but I did so in full recognition of the fact that my own palate is none too subtly in favor of salt, tartness, & heat over sweetness. (The only outright disappointment over the course of 2 meals was a bowl of phat si iew that both I & my companion found lacking in oomph, though the noodles had great texture. By contrast, whole tilapia took no prisoners w/r/t oomph.)

That palate was made for the simple but zingy appetizer of fresh green (as in young, unripe, hence tart) mango wedges (already half gone when I got around to snapping the below pic), served with chile-&-sugar-seasoned sprinkling salt.

And for the lovely herb salad with grilled calamari pieces & pomelo sections, topped with fried shallots & a dressing not unlike nam pla, plus a dollop of crème fraîche. Bitterness here, juiciness there, plus a touch of umami…intriguing all the way.

“Sticky” needn’t be a synonym for “cloying,” & here it thankfully isn’t; the 5-spice-dusted pork riblets are more aromatic than they are sweet per se, a trait that effectively cuts a bit of the fat too.

The red curry in which I swear an entire roast duck was bathed (that leg on top was just the beginning) was one of the things I did find myself adding a bit a salt & spice to; so velvety, so coconut-creamy, it was just a touch too sweet for me—though again, that doesn’t at all mean it was objectively too sweet. Rather, chunky with halved Thai eggplants (those cute round ones) & cherry tomatoes as well as bamboo shoots & gai lan (aka Chinese broccoli) & scented with kaffir lime & fried garlic, it was quite the elaborate, festive concoction—& the meat itself, in its luscious depth of flavor, just shone through it all. One of the best takes on duck I’ve had in some time.

Likewise dark & funky, goat, I’ve often thought (well, not often, but occasionally), is sort of the ungulate answer to duck. Kaeng massaman pae, or coconut-based goat curry with sweet potato, peanuts, tamarind, lemongrass & red chilies is no less lively for being wonderfully rich.

“Chicken basil” sounds boring. It isn’t. Decidedly on the savory rather than sweet end of the spectrum thanks to a blend of black soy & oyster sauce, gai lan, chilies, the namesake Thai basil & Thai chilies—a fried egg is the cherry on top—it’s much more multifaceted & flavorful than it has a right to be.

I didn’t try another companion’s phat thai with dried shrimp, tofu & turnips, but the visual suggests it’s no reluctantly proffered requisite; looks like it’s executed with care & panache to me.

It’s no fault of the kitchen that this photo of the fried rice I got to go is so ugly. The dish itself is tops; so often fried rice is blandly undergarnished, but here it’s almost cartoonishly chock-full of scrambled egg, chunks of sweet potato, bits of gai lan & scallion & jalapeño, & crushed peanuts, boldly splashed with both dark & sweet soy as well as fish sauce.

Whatever you get, trust me when I say you’d sure as shooting better wash it down with drinking vinegar in any of 4 flavors (I heart the tamarind). No, it’s not like taking a swig of straight acetic acid; both fruit-infused & sweetened, it’s also topped off with soda water, result being a light, bright, sweet-tart cooler. Chug, glug, smack lips, repeat.

Phat Thai on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Phat Thai’s Crisp Whole Tilapia

They set it down before you very carefully, so that what you see is this:

But here’s what your companion gets an eyeful of:

Right on, Phat Thai! The stripped, chunked flesh is cornmeal-dredged & deep-fried with cubes of sweet potato & strips of red pepper, & the light brush of oil it all leaves on the bottom of the bowl, with minced garlic & Thai chilies…well, let’s just say one wishes it were a few millimeters deeper. (And that one had just the right starchy starch to soak it up—like Hawaiian sweet rolls. No, not rice, not even sticky rice. King’s.) Same goes for the dressing of fish & soy sauce, lime juice & cilantro—said companion & I discussed how we could get away with drinking it all by itself, &/or what spirit it might properly be paired with.

Full review to come.

Thai Pan Stands Out from the South Side Pack

***This review originally appeared on the website of now-defunct Denver Magazine; I’m posting it here as was—hence the wintertime references—along with an update.***

I’ve tried just about every Thai joint within a 5-mile radius of my house on the south side of town, & I’ve been disappointed by all of them. Let’s face it, the vast majority follow a generic formula that blurs regional distinctions & shifts the cuisine’s celebrated balance of spicy to salty to sour to sweet in favor of the latter to appeal to the American taste for sugar.

So I didn’t get my hopes up for Thai Pan. I’d peeked into the strip-mall storefront at the corner of South Colorado & East Mississippi once, & was vaguely amused by the mishmash of decorative elements so typical of such holes in the wall—a display of jewelry for sale here, a framed photo of the king of Thailand there, carved depictions of elephants (the national symbol) everywhere. But it was closed at the time, & I didn’t consider it again until last week, when the cold snap kept me home in my pajamas, delivery menus at the ready. Although Thai Pan’s menu was laden with the usual stirfries, curries, & noodle dishes, it also listed haw mok—a curried seafood custard rarely found in the repertoire of your average pad Thai peddler. So I went for it, steeling myself for a letdown.

Traditionally, the custard is well set, steamed and served in a “cup” of banana leaves. The container that arrived at my house was loosely set, even soupy. (Owner Panjama Cheewapramong tells me they serve it in a bowl even in-house.) But it was also chock-full of an array of fresh shellfish: huge green-lipped mussels, squid tentacles, firm bay scallops, plump shrimp. The aroma was wonderful, alerting me to the presence of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, mint, & chilies. And so was the first bite (& all the bites after that): the rich coconut-milk curry, invigorating whole-leaf herbs, soft egg, & slightly sour shredded cabbage all set off the shellfish in fine balance.

As delivered As served

So as not to incinerate its delicate flesh, I ordered the dish medium-hot, & I’m glad I did—because the spicy stuff I requested over the course of not just one but three delivery orders were sweat-inducing indeed. That includes the larb, an Isan (or Isaan, i.e., northeastern Thai) specialty. Eaten as a salad, it’s a mixture of ground meat, sliced onion, & herbs (namely mint & basil) that’s dressed with lime juice & red chili flakes & tossed with toasted rice powder for just a bit of crunch. I tried it with both pork and chicken, preferring the former for its juiciness.

In Thailand, larb is commonly served with sticky rice—an effective palate-soother, to be sure. But I got mine in the form of dessert. Sweetened with sugar, mixed with coconut milk, & served warm, black sticky rice forms a porridge that’s every bit as soulful as Indian kheer, British hasty pudding, its cornmeal-based American equivalent, or any other version made around the world—&, with its dramatic purple hue, a lot prettier.

As I curled up on my couch to polish it off, I realized with a grin that I’d finally found what I was looking for: a neighborhood go-to for comfort food, Thai-style.

***UPDATE: Months later, the Director & I have ordered from Thai Pan again & again, experiencing only the rare disappointment. For instance, I’ve found the lard na (not pictured)wide rice noodles, more commonly transliterated as rad na, in a brown gravy—to be a bit overcooked & bland, & the som tum—Thailand’s classic green papaya salad—desultory to say the least.

But tod mun (fried whitefish cakes) are hot, fat, fresh & crunchy.

Conversely ,the spring rolls are cold, fat, fresh & punchy; I got a side of peanut sauce to supplement the usual sweet chili dipping sauce, & was pleased to find it thick with crushed nuts, not starchy.

Finally, the kitchen generally makes a mean stirfry; both the Mongolian with onion, scallions & crispy noodles & the pad phrik with peppers, onions, bamboo shoots, carrots, kaffir lime leaves & curry paste have left us sweating & swooning.

Thai Pan on Urbanspoon

This Is The Last Time I Write This Review: John Holly’s Asian Bistro

A long time ago, an old friend of mine whom my thoughts are always with & who remains my favorite living poet, Chelsey Minnis, wrote a poem that began with the line “This is the last time I write about the moon.”

That will probably be the most interesting thing I say in this blogpost, & the recommendation that you read her work will be the most satisfying recommendation I make.

Because how many times can I get delivery from some pan-Asian joint I know is going to be so-so to begin with, find it to be so-so indeed, & write a so-so review about it? We’ll see, I guess. For now, I’m saying no more times. Oh good, it’s 5 o’clock.

***

Now I have a glass of wine, & I’m going to try to pull this off in the sudden haze of melancholy. There don’t appear to be many pro reviews of John Holly’s Asian Bistro; the fact that Warren Byrne supposedly liked it 8 years ago means next to nothing to me. Then again, the fact that there aren’t many pro reviews means next to nothing to me; we all have our moments when we just need someone to feed us hassle-free in our own homes, & the majority of eateries that provide such door-to-door service are the ones whose so-so-ness is a given. So if no one else is going to bother, I might as well; while quality matters less than convenience in said moments, it’s still nice to know which dishes might taste a little better than which others.

This is the filling for the lettuce-wrapped chicken. The lettuce isn’t pictured, since I assume you know what lettuce looks like. I’d have taken a picture if it had been wilted or rusted or otherwise deficient, but it wasn’t.

JHchickenlettucewraps
It’s listed as hot & spicy on the menu; it’s neither hot nor spicy (not that I’m sure what the difference is). But it isn’t bland either, or worse, too sweet; it’s a standard brown sauce marked by a touch of sweet chili smothering ground chicken, peas, red peppers & onion.

Speaking of things I’m not sure about…well, I could go on forever, but I was definitely curious as to how much lobster could possibly be included in a $3 lobster spring roll. I’m still not sure. Somewhere between “not very much” & “a tad more than not very much. Or not.” Could be a krabsticky version of lobster, or a mixture of real lobster & krab. In any case it isn’t pure lobster meat.

JHlobsterroll JHlobsterroll2

Which isn’t, again, to say it’s bad; given a warm, crispy-crunchy shell shiny with just enough grease & brain-clearing hot mustard as foils for the mildly sweet whatever, how could it be?

Its clear superior, however, is the steamed roll with beef.

JHbeefroll
To be clear, while the roll as a whole is steamed, the strips of beef inside are nice & fried with chunks of egg, cabbage, whole green beans & onion. I could make a meal of a few of these. Granted, I could make that same meal at home, but so what? The point is it’s nice not to have to.

Holly’s Lamb, according to the menu, is “sliced top round lamb…stirfried with low-sodium oyster sauce & a pinch of black pepper & cumin seed.” I like salt. Lots of salt. When I was little I’d pour a mound onto my palm & lick it off. I drink pickle juice. Etc. But I was pleasantly surprised by this dish,

JHlamb

which isn’t salt-free, rest assured; the sauce is richly savory, & the chunks of meat, red onion, red pepper & snowpeas generous.

As for the sushi, even keeping in mind that I was not in the hands of a master itamae here but chefs of the pile-&-stuff-&-pile-some-more school of American maki, I still thought the rolls I ordered were too much. Granted, I ordered ‘em; but that’s the kind of sucker for umeboshi (pickled plum) & shiso leaf I am: the roll on the left is the Kimberly, filled with salmon, avocado & asparagus, topped with seared albacore, & supposedly the ume was in there somewhere too. The roll on the top right is the Osaka, filled with spicy tuna & avocado & topped with mackerel, egg, & shiso. (On the lower right is Japanese squash.)

JHsushi
I definitely didn’t see, nor did I taste, all of the listed ingredients, & the fact that I don’t know whether that’s because the combos were just too busy or some things were actually left off is the whole problem. As it was the rolls were coming apart a bit at the seams.

JHsushi2
In sum: Not great, not bad, okay for weeknight delivery, like 100 other places I’ve covered.

John Holly's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Wild Bangkok? Try Kinky Bangkok

As in still racked by operational kinks. Try Chaotic Bangkok, as in service that, though clearly well-meaning, is all over the place. Conversely, try Totally Tame Bangkok—because so far the kitchen isn’t taking any of the chances suggested by outward appearance, not to mention by the website’s claim to “authentic” “sophistication” from an international culinary team.

It’s a bummer, because I really want to like this place; here’s hoping the food will soon reflect the Northern Thai accents throughout both the vibrantly pretty space (note the traditional seating)
WB1

& the menu, which lists regional specialties that happen to be among my all-time favorite Thai dishes, including miang khamChiang Mai dip (apparently a variant on nam prik ong, containing chicken rather than the standard pork) & the fish custard known as haw moak (here called “Exotic Ocean”).

Unfortunately, listing them & actually offering them are 2 different things; if strike 1 was the 5-minute wait with 8 other people at the cramped entrance—not because there were no tables available but because the host was flitting about helplessly with a permanent strained smile on his face—then strike 2 was ordering the miang kham & nam prik ong only to hear they were out of both. At noon. Huh.

Putting aside our sweet but scattered server’s failure to bring plates & utensils until after a) our 1st course & b) we asked for them, I was beginning to see strike 3 coming: the food was made to suit American tastes, proving entirely mild &/or overly sweet rather than exhibiting the cross-palate balance for which Southeast Asian cookery is so renowned.

Granted, the appetizers we finally did get—money bags (toong tong) & curry puffs—were almost quite good.

WBapps
In deep-fried rice-flour wrappers, the chicken, crab, corn & peanut stuffing of the former, served with sweet chili dipping sauce, wasn’t as distinctive as it sounded, but as a whole the little poppers were pleasant enough. The curry puffs, meanwhile, might have been a whole different matter if they’d been fresh; having obviously been sitting under heat lamps for a spell, the shells were leaden & stale-tasting, their contents indeterminate: supposedly vegetarian, it sure seemed to include ground pork to me. The fact that I couldn’t really tell was a bit unsettling. But the curried spicing was nice & the dipping sauce of, we believed, apple, red onion, cucumber, honey & vinegar intriguing. In short they coulda been contenders if somebody’d looked out for ‘em just a little bit.
WBapps2

The pattaya grouper, however, wasn’t even close,

WBfish
steamed in a cloyingly fruity-sweet ”special sauce” & set atop a clump of pasty soba noodles with 2 slightly woody asparagus spears. At least the house rice, a mix of brown & wild, was all right.

My lunch date, Beth Partin, fared much better with her massaman curry (on the right),
WBmassaman

the peanut & coconut milk gravy strong & rich, filled with potatoes, onions, carrots & chunks of beef; too bad the latter, according to her, was on the tough side (I only tasted the sauce).

It came with rice &, for a small supplemental fee, a bowl of the best dish we tried—a wild pumpkin soup (on the left) that, surprisingly, wasn’t sweet at all but curried & slightly tart.

Overall, though, the misses were more glaring than the hits were satisfying—something the folks at Wild Bangkok will have to remedy quick, not least because the prices they’re asking are substantially higher than most joints of its genre command—think 14 bucks for pad Thai. Until then, think too about going somewhere else, at least at the height of the lunch rush.

Wild Bangkok on Urbanspoon

How much more crap can I take (out)? Spicy Thai vs. my vote for the best of the meh: Thai Basil

I think I’ve now tried every Thai takeout joint within a few miles of my southeast Denver hovel: Thai Basil. Spicy Basil. Spicy Thai. Thai Green Chile. Swing Thai. Jason’s Thai Bistro. Thai This. Thai That. Sucky Noodle. Pad Crud. For the most part they’re as interchangable as their names.

I’ve acknowledged that a) takeout is itself a crapshoot (so to speak) & b) there are a few local joints I’ve yet to hit that do get the love from writers I trust, e.g. Lori Midson, above all US Thai, Thai House, & Chada Thai. (You might also trawl Chowhound for recs like this from lotuseedpaste, who knows her stuff too.) But those are clearly the exceptions to a citywide rule. If I overstate the case, by all means, give me hell & tell me what I’m missing. Otherwise heed my warning & order in from the above, with the possible exception of Thai Basil, only if you’re really lonely & your sole human contact for the eve will be the 2 min. you spend chatting with the delivery guy at the door—who’s sure, to offer another apparent truism about Denver Thai, to be exceedingly gracious & kind. One could do worse in one’s relationships.

In all fairness, then, to the lovely gentleman who recently brought us dinner from Spicy Thai, I’ll admit up front that we only tried 4 dishes. But the fact that each was as ho-hum as the last means I won’t be trying any more, at least not any time soon.

The shumai were doughy & dull;

SpicyThaishumai

the lamb curry bland,

SpicyThailambcurry

the drunken noodles utterly without finesse, too soupy & spiced way down.

SpicyThaidrunkennoodle

Without a picture to remind me I’d have forgotten about the soggy but otherwise characterless seaweed salad entirely. The line between a good seaweed salad & a bad one is thin but distinct; I asked for examples on Chowhound & got some smart replies.

STseaweed

It all made a subsequent order from the aforementioned Thai Basil, mostly merely adequate, seem downright dazzling by comparison.

Above all, the crispy duck was even richer & tenderer than the 1st time we had it, & the portion for the price, $12.50, popped the eyes.

TBduck2

It came with surprisingly good peanut sauce, less thick & more vinegary than the majority. That may primarily be why I also liked mild red ”curry chicken in peanut sauce.” Sounded confusing, tasted mellow & creamy, indeed simply combining the two sauces in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever come across before, though a search suggests it’s common.

TBchickencurry

Should’ve known better than to order Szechuan eggplant rather than Thai eggplant from a Thai place; it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t spicy or sesame-tinged in the least. I’d also have preferred the ratio of eggplant to other veggies be higher, given that that’s what I ordered. Still, it was colorful & tangy & well textured.

TBeggplant

Seared scallops in an almost brothy sweet chili sauce didn’t engage my tongue much, but the sheer number of critters for the price, the same as that of the duck, was once again impressive.

TBscallops
Bottom line: if you’re stuck at home in southeast Denver & a craving for Thai strikes, get over it. If you just can’t get over it, then call Thai Basil & keep your expectations modest.

Unless, that is, you’re one of the 28.8 folks who’ve given Spicy Thai two thumbs up on Urbanspoon, in which case go right ahead & order up a storm.

Spicy Thai on Urbanspoon

Boston Tea Party Turns Denver Thai Party: Thai Basil & the dearth of dandy Mile High Thai take-out

I’ve roasted the skin (hope it’s thick!) off poor Thai Green Chile; I’ve sprayed phrase-mace in Jason of Jason’s Thai Bistro’s face; I haven’t bothered wasting even an inch of cyberspace—& it’s infinite!—on Swing Thai or Spicy Basil. Yet looking at the menus of the likes of  Chada Thai, with its miang kum & haw moak, and reading the raves for Edgewater’s US Thai, I realize that it’s too soon to conclude from my experiences thus far that there’s no Thai around here to speak of except in snarky tones.

That’s especially true insofar as I’ve been insisting, by a series of associations, on ordering the stuff in. I tend (as I think most humans, with our serotonin levels & various biological drives, do) to associate carbs & fat with comfort. I tend (as the luckier among us humans do) to associate home, with its old sofas & filthy sweatshirts & sweethearts lounging around on & in them, with comfort too. Thus I tend, as I think a lot of lucky-gimme-gimme-yay Americans do, to associate the delivery of carb-heavy, fatty foods to my front door with comfort. And thus in turn, I think, do we tend to order in those dishes immigrant cooks have altered precisely to suit our inborn palates, as opposed to the more “authentic” (whatever that means, as usual) dishes we’re more willing to try when already out of our comfort zones anyway, i.e., seated in the restaurants, away from our couches. To basically quote what I wrote in this Chowhound thread I started to get to the bottom of precisely this here theory (which is already yielding interesting & insightful answers, God bless that site), “Takeout/delivery seems to center on Americanized versions of dishes, be it pizza, Chinese, or whatever.
For instance, when I think of eating Chinese in, I think of Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in bed digging with their chopsticks into moo choppy gumshoe or whatever in Manhattan…No one’s ordering, say, tripe and jellyfish. As for pizza, if I’m ordering it in, I’m not likely to be getting a pie topped with zucchini blossoms and fresh mozzarella.”

And as for Thai, the ultimate hot-sour-salty-sweet cuisine, if we’re ordering it in, we’re not likely to be calling up the joints that specialize in miang kum & haw moak; we’re going for noodles whose sauces are oozing with brown sugar, tamarind &, for fuck’s sake, ketchup.

Point being twofold: A, as an American I can’t ask to be catered to like everyone else & then complain when I’m catered to like everyone else. I can’t shit on, say, Thai Basil for loading everything I order with sugar & thickeners when sugar & thickeners are where it’s at in most of the stuff I order. And yet B, as an American, just because I can’t doesn’t mean I can’t. I’m an American! As no less a quintessential American poet than Whitman put it, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” True that.

In short, I still say Denver Thai take-out largely sucks until proven otherwise. As for Thai Basil specifically, about half of my fair sampling of dishes can be taken & shoved, to use another expressly American line:

TBhotandsoursoup
hot & sour soup, actually sweet & starchy viscous liquid

TBdrunkennoodles
drunken noodles, actually oil junkies

TBtofu
golden tofu, actually beige cushion stuffing

TBcrispyfish
& crispy fish with black bean sauce, actually breaded whatever (for a while we thought it might be some funky duck; that’s how unfishlike it was) with

TBblackbeansauce
shiny chunky fructose glop.

But I guess if (duck-fish aside) it walks like junk food & talks like junk food, then it’s probably junk food. By contrast, the green curry with chicken, if neither particularly green nor chickeny, at least had a nice medium texture & a moderate kick;

TBgreenchixcurry

TBscallopredcurry
ditto the more generously laden red curry with scallops.

Potstickers & spring rolls were potstickers & spring rolls, neither here nor there—which is a good thing; both are all about soothing texture, remarkable only (unless you’re in the rare presence of a dumpling master) in the negative, i.e. if the former are doughy or the latter loose. These weren’t, so okay then.

TBpotstickers

TBspringrolls

Both here & there, meanwhile, were the marinated crispy duck—rich & glistening & definitely *not* to be confused with the aforementioned crispy fish—

TBduck

& the Indonesian chicken salad, not to be confused with…anything definitively from Indonesian cuisine or any another so far as I know (do tell if you know otherwise), but yum nonetheless with roast chicken, cashews, raisins, mixed greens & peanut sauce.

TBsalad

These latter appeased me just enough to keep me from throwing Thai iced tea into the harbor—Rocky Mountain spring, whatever—at least until I’ve made it over to Chada.

Thai Basil on Urbanspoon

Comparing apples & crappy oranges: Dong Khanh Saigon Bowl v. Jason’s Thai Bistro

I don’t know if that’s as wholly fair as it is kinda funny, but
the point is this: just because you can’t compare Vietnamese
cuisine & Thai cuisine per se doesn’t mean you can’t mention
a prime Vietnamese joint & a middling Thai, er, bistro in the
same sentence. See, I just did.

And having happened to sample the repertoire of both
Dong Khanh Saigon Bowl
(in the Far East Center at Federal
& Alameda) & Jason’s
Thai Bistro
near DU on the same day, I couldn’t not be struck
by the culinary pride & generosity of spirit of the one in
light of the overall dumbed-down corners-cutting of the other.

My pal Larry (he’s the photographer whose stellar portfolio of
the pickles & pumelos & plucky or puckered faces of their
vendors in marketplaces around the world
I’ve referenced
before) & I spent a hyperleisurely lunch the other day
picking over the pile of tidbits & morsels & fry candy
that is Dong Khanh’s all-of-$18 signature appetizer platter the
other day—

SBapps

shrimp cakes & egg rolls & half a softshell crab on top,
grilled chicken & pork strips & cold rice noodles on
bottom, lettuce & basil & sliced cukes & shredded
carrots & daikon & peanuts, all for wrapping in rice
paper disks softened in warm water like so

SBricepaperdip

(the tricks: be quick before they get sticky on you, & keep
the mix of fillings to a minimum sizewise so they’ll hold) to
form your own fat cigars of goodness graciousness, which you dip
in the classic Vietnamese sauce, sweetish nuoc cham (think duck sauce with
class), before chomping away.

SBsauce

We also split goi tom
thit
& got this gorgeously crisp & kicky
concoction of cold sliced roast pork & plump shrimp, sprouts
& mint & sliced chilies & more basil & peanuts
drizzled in a dressing not unlike nuoc cham, but lighter &
more than a bit spicy.

SBsalad

Dim-lit styrofoam aside, how could the Director’s & my
take-out trash from Jason’s not pale in comparison to what
remained as fresh & vivid in my memory as it was on the
plate?

Mind you, I’m all for rifling through trash upon occasion—who
doesn’t get down with a gloppy gallon of sweet & sour pork or
fettuccine Alfredo or chile con queso now & then?—but, to
paraphrase Stephen King, who once said of his writing something
like, “Sure, it’s salami, but it’s good salami,” if I ask nicely
for soppressata you’d better not toss me Oscar Mayer.

And if I order crab—not krab, crab—& avocado salad, you’d
better not serve me a bunch of lettuce with a smattering of
shredded processed whitefish on top.

JTsalad

And if I order fried tofu, I want crunchy golden-brown chunks of
soybean curd, not marshmallows or cotton balls.

JTtofu

And if I order plain old steamed veggies with beef, chicken,
shrimp & scallops, I’d better not get plain old steamed
veggies with beef, chicken & shrimp. (No photo necessary, I
presume.)

To end on a positive note, though, I will give it up for the snap
pea–studded signature rolls with beef, unexpectedly stirfried
with onions until caramelized & juicy, accompanied by a
peanut sauce that actually was, as opposed to just melted peanut
butter.


JTrolls

Now that’s more like it. I mean, not like it—Dong Khanh—but adequate in &
of itself.

Saigon Bowl on Urbanspoon