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Ever since the air-conditioning in my car broke a few weeks ago, I've been doing all I can to beat the heat: I prop up sun shades when I park; I drive with the windows open, radio volume up high so I can hear over the road noise; and I always drink while driving (non-alcoholic, of course). I've also been ordering lots of green curry from Mali Thai Cuisine.
I'm not the first one to use chiles, not compressors, to beat the heat. Think of the world's spiciest foods — harissa, Jamaican jerk, chile-laden salsas — and you'll be thinking of hot climates where foods make people sweat, producing a naturally cooling evaporative effect. In this country, however, the practice isn't as instinctual as it is elsewhere — certainly nowhere near as instinctual as ordering a cold Chang beer — and it took some convincing on my part for my friends to up the ante on their curries, noodles and stir-fries to anything but mild.
But as I'd expected, Mali's green curry kicked in like air-conditioning on max. In traditional Thai cooking, green curry is the hottest of the bunch, inducing a more intense burn than the red, yellow, panang and massaman varieties because of the fresh green chiles, not dried red ones, that give the dish its name. Even at a medium spice level, the soupy dish loaded with chicken, eggplant, bamboo shoots and green peppers brought beads of sweat to our faces, cooling us off while we sat on the patio. That's right, the patio. On any other evening I would have chosen the dining room, given the current state of my AC affairs, but that night the normally pleasant interior — with electric-green walls, white tables and nest-like green and white chairs — seemed stuffy. (I found the problem rectified on subsequent visits.)
4955 S. Ulster St.
Denver, CO 80237
Region: Southeast Denver
Slideshow: Behind the Scenes at Mali Thai Cuisine
Tom kha worked nearly as well as the curry, with enough chile paste to tint the coconut-milk-based soup a brownish red and give it a back-of-the-throat buzz that hung around like cumulus humilis clouds on a hot day: noticeable, but not so strong as to obscure the kaffir lime leaves that perfume the dish. Chile paste also stained the chicken, cashews, onions and green peppers in the pad himmapan a deep red, with the sweetness of the nuts playing nicely off the heat. And the pad eggplant was excellent, with wedges of slender, purple-skinned eggplant, basil and green peppers in a garlicky brown sauce that sizzled. I only wished I'd paid the dollar more for a dinner portion, as the lunch size didn't allow for leftovers.
Not all dishes are so consistently spiced. Larb chicken, a cold salad of ground chicken, rice powder and greens, only hinted at the pungency this traditional Thai combo should have. At many places, salads come out over-dressed, with soggy leaves and enough dressing to slip off in globs. My larb, however, suffered the opposite fate. It was not quite naked, but nearly so, lacking enough chiles, lime, vinegar and mint to fully clad the plate. At one lunch, the complimentary soup that started off the meal tasted like watered-down Cup o' Noodles. And though it wasn't ordered mild, the big bowl of tom yum definitely was (the receipt backed this up). Noodles, bok choy, sliced chicken and crushed peanuts swam in a broth that was missing not only the oomph from chiles, but the galangal, limes and lemongrass that normally give this hot-and-sour soup its flavor.
Perhaps these inconsistencies are due to the fact that Napha Polawat, who was executive chef when Mali opened late last year, left a few months ago. This is owner Satita Malithong's first restaurant, but general manager Alex Tongbua — like Malithong, a native of Thailand — is a veteran of the food industry who started cooking in 1970 and opened Thai Pepper in Fort Collins nearly twenty years ago. It was Tongbua who found this space, tucked on the second floor of a shopping center next to a gym, and convinced Malithong that the Tech Center needed a restaurant like the one she wanted to open.
If Mali's food isn't always as spicy as it would be in Thailand, Tongbua says that's because the kitchen is catering to its audience. "American people, some never eat Thai food," Tongbua told me over the phone. "We tend to give things mild." But if I wanted something mild, I'd go somewhere else; after all, Thai food is known for its heat. Taking out the chiles is akin to the line in the classic film Amadeus when Mozart is told that his work is very good, except there are too many notes. "Just cut a few," instructs the emperor, "and it will be perfect." But like F sharps and B flats, the chiles are in there for a reason.
Except that sometimes you'll eat with friends who think like the emperor, and you'll have to compromise. That's when Mali's pad se-ew, with wide rice noodles, Chinese broccoli and a sweet soy sauce; pad Thai woon sen, an innocuous tangle of chewy cellophane noodles, eggs and crisp bean sprouts hued red from paprika; or fried rice studded with more servings of vegetables than a V8 are good go-to options. Safe haven can also be found in the desserts, including fried bananas with ice cream or sliced mangoes with sweet sticky rice.