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Family Thais

The voice leaving the message sounded sadder than that of a person whose best friend had just died. "I'm so, so worried that this place is going to close," the caller said. "If you went there, you'd just fall in love with the food. Please visit it and see what you think, and then please, please, please tell people about it if you like it as much as I do."

I do. I do.
The "it" my caller was referring to is Thai Kitchen, an East Colfax eatery that's just slightly too far east for comfort. It sits beside a liquor store that fairly bounces off the corner with business, but none of those customers seem interested in popping their heads in next door. And that's too bad, because I liked what I saw at Thai Kitchen from the start. It's a warm, congenial spot, with adorable displays of plastic food, walls lined with booths the color of lime skins, and tables covered with green gingham-style vinyl cloths.

If I liked what I saw, I fell in love at first bite. The weekday luncheon buffet is an incredible deal; just $4.99 buys an all-you-can-eat spread with nineteen entrees, and not just Thai ones, either. On my first visit, the chafing dishes were filled with steaming curries from the Philippines and India; Japanese salads and sushi (all-you-can-eat California rolls!); several Asian-style chicken dishes, including one with a rich adobo sauce; and four soups: won ton, tom kha gai, hot-and-sour and a coconut-based tofu. Everything in this vast array--which also featured several thick, meaty stews in Crock-Pots--was marvelously well-prepared, mixing fresh ingredients with (sushi excepted) elaborate sauces or broths that had been further enhanced with plenty of herbs and spices.

Most of the dishes were amazingly complex for a buffet roster. The tom kha gai--Thai soup of chicken, coconut milk, lemongrass, the ginger-like galingal and mushrooms--was particularly flavorful. So was the adobo-style Filipino chicken--crisp-fried fowl parts awash in a vinegar-sparked sauce of garlic-infused coconut milk--and the tofu in a thick, creamy brown curry sauce. Even better was the fried tofu in a masaman curry sauce, which followed the classic combination of roasted peanuts, nam pla (Thai fish sauce), bird's-eye chiles, coriander, caraway, ginger, black pepper, lemongrass, shrimp paste, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, tamarind, garlic and palm sugar, all melded into coconut milk for an exquisitely sophisticated, multi-layered result.

The processed liquid from coconuts--coconut milk is made by adding water to shredded fresh coconut meat and simmering it, then squeezing the flesh to get the juices out--is used extensively in Thai Kitchen's cooking, which adds to the menu's Malaysian bent. (I tried to get some information about the place--particularly details on the cook's background--from Kitchen staffers, but language barriers proved insurmountable both during our visits and later on the phone.)

When we returned for dinner, sweet coconut milk is what made the peanut sauce draped over the tender chicken satay so striking; often a satay condiment is considerably spicier or cloyingly sweeter than Thai Kitchen's examplary version. Two satay skewers came on the po-po platter ($9.95); we liked the sauce so much that we smeared it on many of the platter's other components, too. But the egg rolls--here called Imperial rolls and filled with carrots, vermicelli, cabbage and a touch of pork--worked just as well with the spicy nam pla sauce, as did the platter's pile of fried wontons. No cream-cheese goo here: These wonton wrappers had been folded flat over seasoned ground pork and dipped in hot oil until the packages were just barely hot and nicely chewy. The platter also held a pair of stellar fish cakes (mere hints of garlic and chiles let the seafood flavor dominate, while minced lemongrass gave it a little kick) and fried chicken drumsticks stuffed with a combination of vegetables and meats that had been ground into a fine, almost pate-like paste.

Along with the platter, we'd also ordered chicken coconut soup ($6.95), a delectable variation on the theme we'd enjoyed at lunch. This time the coconut milk was enlivened by lemon juice and a mild chile edge; the broth was packed with straw mushrooms and soft slips of chicken meat that had soaked up the flavor. The addition of tomato wedges seemed odd at first, because they're so acidic, but they brought a welcome bite to the sweet, addictive base.

Tomatoes also played an important part in the red curry with duck ($7.95): Large chunks of moist duck meat floated in a tomato-based broth that was strong with the heat of many bird's-eye chiles but balanced by cooling lime juice and sweetened with a touch of tamarind. Hotter still was the Japanese-style spicy squid ($8.95), a simple but stunning combination of perfectly cooked cephalopod in a pungent chile sauce flecked with slippery pieces of onion and teeming with fresh Asian basil; in all its minty glory, the basil made the dish. Much milder was the prawn Siamese ($7.95)--medium-sized shrimp cooked with baby corn, snow peas, celery, broccoli and bamboo shoots, all of which added their essences to the thin, stock-like sauce. Although we enjoyed it, too, this straight-forward dish was perfect for our toddler. What kid can resist baby corn?

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