Standing in front of Thai Lotus after our first meal there, Laura and I look at the place, amazed. Stuffed and carrying takeout, we need something to aid our digestion.
"In Florida," Laura says, "my grandmother used to take a walk every time she went out for Chinese food. Not very far. Usually just to the end of the strip mall and back."
And so we do the same, walking in the sun, passing by the windows of Chianti, which once was Venice, the first restaurant I reviewed when I came to Denver six years ago. We loop around behind the strip mall, into the back parking lot, and keep walking. There are people sitting behind one of the storefronts, the door braced open, watching the Broncos game on a portable TV, and they nod as we pass. We go all the way around, and I can still taste the Thai sweet-hot sauce on my lips when I lick them. I can still smell the grease of curry puffs on my fingers.
I'd never been to Thai Lotus before, never even heard of it, and that amazes me. Of course, there are plenty of restaurants in this city, even in this area I so frequently visit, that exist quietly, below the sweep of my radar; restaurants that don't do anything, good or bad, that elevates them above the background radiation of the business; restaurants that simply serve without ever calling attention to themselves. I've spent six years studying, searching, prospecting for the good, the bad and the ugly amid the wash of thousands of food-service operations, and I know I've barely scratched the surface. I know that some kind of mythic total awareness will be forever beyond me. But still, I'm amazed that a place as good as Thai Lotus has escaped my notice.
It makes me wonder what else I have missed, overlooked, passed by without a second glance. I've been to Chianti, and Venice before that — what? Ten times, maybe? A dozen? Which means that ten or a dozen times before, I'd been within spitting distance of Thai Lotus — and not even seen it. I've stood on this sidewalk on nights when, starving, I've had to wait 45 minutes for a table, and it never occurred to me to just say, "Screw it," take twenty steps and eat Thai food instead of Italian. When we'd finally stepped into Thai Lotus for our first meal there — propelled by a chance hit on the Internet, Laura's lingering cold and a need for something spicy, hot and singeing — I actually had a flash of memory: of standing in front of Venice, smoking a cigarette, waiting and watching a couple walk by with bags of takeout, the smell of curry and basil wafting off them like an alien perfume. I remembered thinking how good that had smelled, but then being called back to the Italian restaurant, my table finally ready.
Thai Lotus had been right there — within the scope of my regular wanderings — and I'd never gone in.
Thai Lotus has been around for six and a half years — as long as I have. The crew is Thai, the food obviously Thai, unkinked for the American palate, presented the way that the best immigrant cuisines are — as best recalled from home. The original executive chef was Charoon Panichakul, ex of the Continental Airlines food-service operation (where he was executive chef) and the tasting kitchens of Boston Market — a weird route to have traveled, for sure. His sous was Edie Unium, who stood post as head cook at J's Noodles for fifteen years before coming to Thai Lotus. They had the place for five years, then sold it. Same name, same concept, same room, but now with Chavalit Wattanasarith and his brother standing in the spaces vacated by Charoon and Edie — the brothers cooking and serving, seating, balancing the books, everything. For eighteen months, they've done it all, sometimes with help, sometimes without. It's their house now. A family thing.
And it shows. I haven't liked the lad na I've ordered at other Thai restaurants in town — the long, flat and handmade noodles tending to go clumpy and pasty, like Italian tagliatelle too long in the water. But then I tried the Wattanasarith bothers' lad na at Thai Lotus and loved it — the noodles pan-fried until they blister and crisp at the edges and on the flat places where they touch the hot metal, then made into a nest and souped with a thin Thai gravy powerfully redolent of garlic. There was bok choy, cooked until soft and silky, and shrimp curled into little pink commas of flesh. And the herbed chicken — a house specialty, the only thing listed in the "Rotisserie" section of the Thai Lotus menu, offered as a half or whole — was astonishing, juicy and tender, roughly hacked into bone-spurred chunks, the golden-brown and fatty skin perfectly roasted and still attached. From the back, I'd heard the thunking of the cleaver as the chicken was deconstructed for me. And when it arrived, it was wreathed in steam like something out of a commercial, served with rice and a bowl of thick sauce, red like a liquid ruby flecked with flaws of dried hot pepper. The chicken was too difficult to eat with chopsticks, so I went in with my fingers, sucking roasted meat off the bone that tasted like the best fried chicken, chewing skin that was unmistakably Asian: soft, not crisp, almost sweet and slicked with fat.
I got dumplings, too — Thai dim sum, according to the menu and to Chavalit, who'd slipped silently from behind the counter in the small, narrow dining room. Steamed in the dim sum style, stuffed with pork paste and green onions, the skins almost melting in the wet heat, they were decent, but the sauce was like a bad Chinese restaurant's sweet-and-sour, all gooey sugar and smoky aftertaste. The curry puffs were perfect, however: wonton skins stuffed with ground chicken, onion, infinitesimal sparks of carrot and tiny cubes of potato like a brunoise that would make a French chef smile, then fried hard until they crisped and blistered. When I broke one in half, the curry smell hit me like a toot of amyl nitrate. It was like a samosa but lighter, better — like something you'd find on the apps menu at the world's greatest Applebee's, overlooking the beach in Jakarta, its menu a mess of Riblets and Snickers pie and satay and green bamboo curry.
We ate all we could hold, Laura and I, and still had a full meal's worth of leftovers boxed and bagged and set on an empty table for us until we were capable of standing under our own power. The bill, when we finally paid it, was ridiculously small. And then we walked, as Laura talked about her grandmother and I wondered aloud how we possibly could have missed this place for so many years.
"There are a lot of restaurants," Laura says as we finish a second circle and arrive back at the car. "Too many."
"I know, but this..." and my voice trails off, still amazed at the shallowness of my own knowledge.
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We would go back, of course, over the next couple days. For curry, gold with potato; fiery-hot panang, nutty with ground peanut and flecked with red exclamation points of chile; and massaman (always the favorite), with more potato and limp wedges of onion, sauce the pale color of fresh-cut wood and sweating beads of oil. We would order everything hot and nothing would be too hot, although the panang would come close.
On all of our visits, Thai Lotus is never busy, but it's never silent. There's always an occupied table or two — solitary men with newspapers, families with children, small groups of people smarter than me who somehow found this place and then kept it to themselves. Sometimes the staff outnumbers the customers; most of the time it's the other way around. And always, the house is happy to see anyone who comes in.
In the calm and quiet, we eat chicken satay with peanut sauce and another rotisserie chicken, green papaya salad and Thai fried rice twined with threads of egg, studded with bits of carrot, onion, chicken, black raisins, cashews and sweet chunks of pineapple. It isn't the best Thai fried rice we've ever had (a bit dry, a bit lacking in the flood of contrasting flavors), but it's good enough — spurring us to order other things, to page through the menu and look for more tastes for other nights: larp and pad phrik khing; sweetened sticky rice with chunks of cool mango; tom kha soup with galangal, lemongrass, lime leaf and coconut milk, with bits of chicken or pork or squid swimming in the depths. Thai cooks are the only ones who've ever figured out what to do with galangal and lime leaf, who can make something of these ingredients that doesn't taste like overwrought fusion or like licking the floor of a health food store. I can't wait to find out what Thai Lotus does with them.
We'll be back for all that and more. We'll be back because, once the shock of discovery wore off, I was left with a lingering thrill that, even after six years, wonderful, amazing restaurants still lurk around every corner in this town. That no matter how hard I look or how expert I become, there'll always be a place just steps away that remains a mystery — curry-scented and quiet — until the day comes when circumstance finally carries me through the door.