***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.
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.