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.