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Thai Flavor curries favor with reviewer Laura Shunk

The best curry I've ever tasted was at a pop-up beer garden near the banks of the Mekong River on the border between Thailand and Laos. The proprietors had pieced together a kitchen from a series of elaborate camp stoves, and they used it to feed a huge crowd, waiters tottering between plastic tables with platters loaded with beer, baskets of rice and that sublime curry. Using their mortar and pestle and a collection of sauté pans on the stoves, the cooks had created a fiery, orange-hued curry, dotted with angry-looking red chiles and full of pieces of bell pepper, eggplant and prawns. It was incredible, and I dream of it still.

Curry is a mainstay of Thai cuisine — served at roadside stands, in top-end joints and everywhere in between. It's one of a handful of dishes you'll find in every corner of the country, albeit in very different forms. But Thai curry didn't originate on the Indochinese peninsula. Nor did it come from China or Europe, the two areas that most heavily influenced Southeast Asian fare. Rather, it migrated from India centuries ago, becoming thinner as it moved north. Thai curry is soupier than the Indian version — still made from a paste that includes hot chile peppers, cumin and turmeric, but most of the dried herbs, such as cardamom and cinnamon, have been replaced with fresh ones.

Although curry is ubiquitous in Thailand, it wasn't until the 1970s that Thai curry really made its way to the United States. It evolved in this country, too — but not for the better. Most of the renditions you find here are utterly mediocre: too sweet, too simple, too made from a pre-mixed paste. There are exceptions, of course. My old neighborhood in Los Angeles County had several restaurants that slung the real thing: Thai curry that was simultaneously hearty and delicate; sweet, savory and spicy; complexly layered with garlic, ginger, woody galangal and piney lemongrass. Thickened with coconut milk, it was laced with racy green or red Thai chiles or toasted cumin and topped with a smattering of sweet-tart kaffir lime leaves or a few sprigs of fresh basil; it might have been filled with chunks of crisp vegetables and tender hunks of meat or used to smother a whole, just-caught fish.

Pen Chua delivers a plate of drunken noodles at Thai Flavor.
mark manger
Pen Chua delivers a plate of drunken noodles at Thai Flavor.

Location Info

Map

Thai Flavor Restaurant

1014 S. Peoria St.
Aurora, CO 80012

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Aurora

Details

Som tum salad $5.95
Spring rolls $3.50
Pad kra pao $8.95
Drunken noodles $8.95
Panang curry $7.95
Red curry $7.95
Tom yum goong soup $9.95
1014 South Peoria Street, Aurora
720-859-7648
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, Sunday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

But even those places were few and far between in Southern California, where there's a sizable Thai population. In Denver, the Thai curries I've tried in the past have always been disappointing. And after my recent trip to Southeast Asia, where I ate great Thai curry just about every day and truly sublime Thai curry in that pop-up beer garden, I was almost too frightened to try again.

And then I went to Thai Flavor.

Surin Thanon, a native of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, took over Thai Flavor seven years ago, preserving the name, the bubblegum-hued storefront entrance and the sparsely decorated dining room. She breathed life back into the menu, though, bringing her capable touch to such standards as pad Thai and the curries, and adding specialties from her home — including some, like certain whole-fish dishes, that aren't translated into English on the menu. But the offerings also sweep down the country to include southern Thai specialties, like Massaman curry — which is actually similar in flavor to Indian curry, with cinnamon and cloves mixed with the lemongrass and galangal — as well as dishes from Vietnam. On my first visit, I settled into a high-backed booth, slugged a light Chang beer while listening to out-of-context Billie Holliday on the speakers, and dug into a som tum green papaya salad, a preparation popular across the Southeast Asian subcontinent. I'd asked for it hot, which garnered a good-natured chuckle from my server.

"Medium," he'd said. "If it's not hot enough, I'll bring you more chiles. Or you can add the crushed ones on the table."

It was hot enough. Shreds of freshly grated crisp papaya mixed with stiff green beans and firm cherry tomato halves had been coated with sweet-garlicky fish sauce tinged with sour lime, then studded with a crunchy dusting of peanuts. And while I could see tiny bits of red chiles, which Thanon grows both in the restaurant and in her garden at home, it took three bites before the full scope of the heat hit my palate, burning slowly and steadily until I had to beg for sticky rice to soothe my tongue. That was a happy accidental order, though, because the sticky rice had been cooked just right: It was soft, chewy, grainy and so sticky that I could pull off clumps with my fingers and dip them in sauce like chunks of bread. Which I couldn't stop doing as my mouth became acclimated to the heat. I also gnawed my way through a pile of barbecued ribs, succulent beef slightly charred and caramelized by the grill, and served with hot mustard. True to versions I'd had in Asia, the ribs were imbued with an intense, smoky sweetness that cut all the way down to the bone.

Then, finally, the main event: a brimming bowl of Panang curry, creamy and caramel-colored. The first spoonful was pungent and peppery, laced with the same chile-infused heat as the salad, but this time checked by the natural sugar of the coconut milk, the savory bite of garlic and the tangy nip of a freshly squeezed lime. The curry was swimming with tender strips of pork and dotted with scallions and basil. It was a seemingly never-ending bowl, and I ladled spoonful after spoonful onto perfect, fluffy rice, slurping just the liquid when I was too full to eat more meat.

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4 comments
zombyboy
zombyboy

Great review. My wife and I try to get there at least once a month. Not only is the food wonderful, but the staff and the service are great, too.

Libby
Libby

The pad prik khing is to die for - I've ordered numerous dishes of theirs and I just can't get enough of this dish!

Marsell
Marsell

Great review! My favorite Thai restaurant in the entire metro area.

echo
echo

note there is a small thai menu as well for people that can read it. also there is stuff i haven't seen elsewhere at other thai restaurants. and if you go with a thai person, they'll make the dishes even more authentic.

 
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