By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
I loved the place even though my first meal there was not altogether successful — splitting my passions between plates I adored and ones that I would never, ever order again. The shrimp dumplings — pan-fried and fat, hand-crimped, with thick skins and a filling of shrimp paste and green onions and what I swear are crayfish tails even though the menu says they are just shrimp — were amazing. Alone, they were delicious. Dipped in the ginger-and-chile-spiked soy sauce, they were even better. And the roti canai, though not of the tissue-thin variety I prefer, though not served with the thick sweet-hot curry I like with bits of potato and odd scraps of meat, but instead with a curry sauce that was thin and brothy and slicked with chile oil, was also satisfying. It was thicker here, almost like an Indian paratha, but with the same lacy edges of fried butter, the same vague sweetness.
Unfortunately, the beef rendang was virtually inedible, even if the cubed beef was well prepared; it was too greasy, too unbalanced, tasting of charred wood and burnt chiles more than anything else. And I couldn't enjoy the shrimp bee-hoon because the thin, Singaporean rice noodles had been fried with bean sprouts and had taken on the earthy smell and dirt flavor of the sprouts (one of the few edible things on this earth that I just plain can't stand) — but this was more my issue than something the kitchen had done wrong.
1699 S. Colorado Blvd.
Denver, CO 80222
Region: Southeast Denver
Still, experience told me that this was a menu that simply needed a careful approach, a skill and precision in ordering that my usual "I'll have two of everything and a couple of beers to wash it down" style of diner/waitress interaction would not benefit. Particularly since the menu at Jaya is broad, covering a wide swath of Southeast Asian traditions and canons. There are fragments of Thai cuisine tucked in among the Indonesian and Malaysian specialties, tastes of Singapore and China like hidden temples in the jungle, then some dull Amerasian plates offered like sops to the boring neighbors.
So I returned with my first meal less than 24 hours settled and had more shrimp dumplings, more roti canai, gailan with salted fish, Penang curry (which was excellent — creamy and subtle and not too sweet, though I missed the potatoes of the strip-mall Thai variety) and a plate of Hainanese chicken rice that was just beautiful: another half-chicken, boiled this time and cut off the bone, served with sweet coconut rice and two delicious sauces (one cool and green and bright with onion and garlic, the other orange and sweetly spicy). My love was stabilizing, finding its footing. And when the waitress suggested to me that I eat a bit of the roti with table sugar because that was the way she liked it, the way her child had always eaten it, and that, perhaps, I should just pinch up more of the sauce with my chicken than drag it through the bowl like some kind of savage, I thrilled to the place even more.
The next night I was back at the counter, asking for ayam goreng kalasan. Somewhere down the road was my couch, my TV, that Red Lobster commercial — and my date with complete digestive meltdown.
Hmm..., I thought. I wish I had some lobster right now.
And then, BOOM. Like biting into a hand grenade. Like eating fire. It was hours before I recovered, and the next morning I still had a headache — a vice clamped to the back of my neck, the ultimate chile-head hangover. But while I was regretful, while I vowed that I would be more attentive in the future to what I was putting in my mouth and swore a terrible vengeance on Red Lobster, what really occupied me from the moment I realized that my mouth, my tongue and my belly had all recovered reasonably well?
When I would be able to get back to Jaya for another order of those shrimp dumplings.
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