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I know how Thai food tastes when eaten with the fingers in the back seat of a Toyota Celica parked facing the wrong way down a one-way alley, windows up, lights out, the air thick with stale pot smoke. I know the smell of it -- full and exotic -- curling up from the bulging lids of waxy cardboard takeout containers in a plastic bag that steams in the cold, a $40 feast bought on a new credit card that I'd never make a payment on until threatened by the law. I know its texture, gone limp in the 90 percent humidity of Tampa in August, as I sucked flat rice noodles through my teeth at one in the morning on the patio of a restaurant whose name I never knew, watching busboys race fat, black cockroaches along the railing at ten bucks a go.
8345 S. Park Meadows Center Drive
Littleton, CO 80124
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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Vietnamese egg roll: $4.50
Golden tofu: $4.50
Thai spiced soup: $2.75
Chicken coconut soup: $2.75
Sesame chicken: $8.50
Satay chicken: $4.50
Chili hot wings: $3.95
Garlic butter shrimp: $9.95
Penang curry: $7.50
Thai fried rice: $6.50
I know how to cook Thai, at least a little. Certain dishes and ingredients and techniques must be part of the repertoire of any modern cook, and coconut milk curries, the creative use of pineapple, fast and dirty wok cooking -- these are useful rabbits to be able to pull from a hat. I learned my tricks from a Viet-Lao line cook at a Chinese restaurant in upstate New York who had anachronistic Nazi swastikas tattooed on the points of each elbow, his thin arms banded in Japanese kanji.
On occasion, I still crave the brutal oxy-acetylene burn of Sriracha hot sauce on chicken wings, washed away with long pulls of Tiger beer. That's a particular taste from my misspent youth -- nights at the Samurai, where they never checked IDs and would've served a fetus if it had a wallet. Sriracha was the only condiment offered, Tiger the only beer with a name I recognized -- and if the brew tasted like formaldehyde and ammonia, so what? I was a teenager, and beggars can't be choosers.
Mostly, though, I know Thai food in a rather more intimate context, with boxes and bags and cardboard cartons scattered across the rumpled topography of tangled bedsheets, plates balanced on bare knees, flavors all tangled up in a haze of sweat and pheromones, cigarette smoke, lipstick and the better brands of beer, which I can afford now that I'm legal and (more or less) solvent. Thai food is sex -- heat and sweet and complication, the construction of something lasting and lovely and infinitely adaptable by the creative combination of just a few constituent parts. The two go together like old jazz and rain.
I've never eaten pad thai in the land where it was born, never tasted the chiles, the kaffir limes, the tom yum goongladled out fresh from the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai -- but I know Thai food. I know it like an American does, which is to say I understand the translation of an Asian cuisine served to American crowds by an Asian staff at an American restaurant with an Asian owner.
I've never been to Bangkok, but I'm sure it looks nothing like Aurora. I'm sure that no restaurant in the whole of Thailand looks anything like Thai Basil II, the six-month-old little sister of the original and very successful Thai Basil in Washington Park. I'm sure that there's nowhere in Southeast Asia quite the same as the jointed strip mall where Thai II sits, angled to snap like a strange Lego into the crowded consumer landscape, the restaurant itself cast off into one distant arm flanked by an insurance agency and a nail salon. You wouldn't think that any table in Aurora would be hard to get, but Thai II often has a line.
On Saturday night, the suburbanites are standing on the sidewalk waiting to get in; more crowd into the claustrophobic waiting area; delivery drivers weave through the throng. Takeout orders keep the cash register going nonstop, the steel-grate shelves behind it crowded with plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. Elsewhere, there are ceramic Buddhas and those fat, grinning good-luck kitties, one paw raised, seen at nearly every Asian restaurant in the world. I'm thinking of getting one. These things must work.
In the dining room, the decor is like a half-price sale at Pier 1, with a lot of lacquered wood and bamboo, bright aluminum etched with flowing waves. It's the kind of look that would probably be cutting-edge hip in Des Moines, already ten years dated in L.A. Even on busy nights here, service is fast if you don't ask too many questions. A translation issue, this time linguistic: I order Vietnamese egg rolls and tom yum goong, expecting one thing and getting something totally other. The soup is like Campbell's tomato, thinned, then taken on a tour of Southeast Asia, picking up a new spice at every port of call. On the top, bobbing button-mushroom caps; at the bottom, shrimp slowly dissolving in the heady, spicy, acidic broth.
The egg rolls follow -- crisp, greasy and hot from the oil. They're wrapped in rice paper, in crisp layers like phyllo, sweet like phyllo. Inside, there's dark pork paste, richly seasoned and shot through with bits of jicama, julienne carrots, tangles of glass noodle and dark, murky slivers of mushroom. The chili-lime sauce that comes on the side -- on the side or right on top of half of Thai II's dishes, helping to create that sensation of complexity built with limited components -- looks like the Vietnamese nuoc cham dipping sauce I'm used to, the stuff I'd expect to come with an order of Vietnamese egg rolls. It has the same color, the same oily sheen, but tastes like lime zest rubbed with chile and set on fire.
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