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.