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Wok, Don't Run

Good looks can't make up for the lack of flavor at these two Asian spots.

The mystery of Asian food is that it looks so easy to make. What's so tough about throwing cut-up vegetables, bits of meat and a few spices into a big, overheated vessel and cooking everything until it's edible?

But appearances can be deceiving, as recent meals at two newer Asian eateries attest. Swing Thai and Stir Crazy Cafe, which debuted within two months and seven blocks of each other along Alameda Avenue, both look great, but so far, dining at either has not proved to be a stirring experience.

Opened last December by partners Prakan Chotinun and Jay Dedrick -- the pair originally worked together at Vail's Siamese Orchid; Chotinun moved to Wichita to start his own joint before Dedrick talked him into coming back to Colorado -- Swing Thai is a clean, funky place whose look fits its name and belies the building's gas-station origins. The only indication of this spot's previous life is the odd, narrow parking lot that once held the pumps. That and the fact that it's still easy to fill up -- fast and cheap -- at Swing Thai.

Fill 'er up: Located in a former gas station, Swing Thai now fuels humans.
Q Crutchfield
Fill 'er up: Located in a former gas station, Swing Thai now fuels humans.

You order at the counter, then either wait in line for your food or sit down at one of the small tables, where a staffer will bring your meal when it's ready. Dedrick handles the front of the house and Chotinun the kitchen, which offers a roster of simple Thai combinations that each cost no more than $6.50 (plus another buck if you want shrimp) and can be assembled and cooked in ten minutes or less.

There are two dangers inherent in this concept: When an eatery's on a budget, it's easy to bulk up a dish with rice or noodles; and fast-paced kitchens often tend to make a lot of little mistakes. The drunken noodles ($7) offered evidence of both pitfalls -- lots of thick, soft rice noodles had been mixed with a little bit of egg, six broccoli flowerettes, one pale tomato wedge, five small shrimp and none of the basil leaf promised on the menu, which would have given this otherwise bland combination a little flavor. We'd ordered it mild -- all preparations can come mild, medium or hot -- but not that mild. The Swing special ($6.50) also suffered from kitchen snags: The dish contained three very thinly cut slices of beef and a lot of totally raw -- not-even-warmed-by-the-sauce raw -- vegetables (green bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, baby corn and straw mushrooms) in a "fresh garlic sauce" that didn't taste of garlic.

But Swing Thai also produces its share of hits. The pineapple fried rice ($5.50) was plain but flawless: rice, eggs, pineapple, a sprinkling of yellow curry and four thin shreds of pork. The tasty red curry ($6.50) featured coconut milk (hard to go wrong when that's involved) and plenty of basil leaf that had soaked into the large slice of tofu we'd chosen as our protein. Since there were only two pieces of totally raw vegetables -- a chunk each of red and green bell pepper -- in this dish, we were able to ignore them. Unfortunately, it was easy to ignore the curry's heat factor, too: Swing Thai's idea of hot is not so hot.

And on two visits, its appetizers have left me positively cold. Although the chicken satay ($3.50) boasted a fine peanut sauce, with plenty of peanuts and none of the usual cloying sweetness, the poorly grilled chicken strips were so dry and chewy that we skipped the meat altogether and started eating the sauce with a spoon. The crispy vegetable rolls ($3 for three), filled with vermicelli, carrots, black mushrooms cabbage and no liquid at all, were so dry they were like crunchy little pillows stuffed with cotton, and the lackluster chile sauce on the side provided no relief. The fresh spring rolls ($3.50), on the other hand, kept oozing water from the bottom, where the rolls were still warm, as though they'd been made ahead and left sitting on the stove -- which would also explain why the tops of the rice paper had dried out and returned to their original crunch. The result was downright unsettling: The heat had made the cilantro and mint leaf overpower everything, and it also started to break down the cucumbers, which in turn started leaking water onto the plate. Yuck. And the plum sauce intended for dipping was inedible -- it made me think of hairspray.

Even dessert was a disappointment. The grease-drenched fried bananas ($3) tasted like they'd been tossed in a fryer with fish and chicken nuggets -- and someone had added a few drops of chile sauce to the honey water that we were supposed to dip the fruit into. Surprise!

Looking back into the tiny, bustling, steam-filled kitchen, it wasn't hard to imagine how such snafus occur. The kitchen is so tiny, in fact, that much of the prep work actually occurs in the dining room, where we watched two employees preparing string beans at one table while another cracked eggs in front of the soda machine so she could toss the shells into the large-mouth garbage can next to it. (Isn't that a health-code violation?) Then again, there's something appealing about being in charge of your own dining destiny. Once we'd ordered and paid for our meals, it was up to us to refill our Cokes, grab extra napkins and even find lids to turn our plastic plates into containers for leftovers.

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