A Bright Spot
Kim's is not the kind of place where anyone goes on purpose the first time. It's the kind of place you almost always find by accident. A happy accident, as it turns out.
Maybe you discovered it through that annoying vegetarian ex-girlfriend, who always seemed to have a takeout box of Kim's sautéed tofu in rich, dark tomato sauce knocking around the back of her fridge. You'd end up sharing it with her in the middle of the night, eating it hot right out of the only pan she owned, and even though she pretentiously refused to call it by anything but its proper Vietnamese name -- dau hu xot ca -- and horribly butchered the pronunciation every time, the memories of that tofu are the only high points remaining from an otherwise doomed relationship.
Or maybe it was simpler than that. Walking home from the library on some frigid afternoon, you may have come upon the takeout joint with its name, Kim's Vietnamese and Chinese Cuisine, stenciled in faded blue on the front wall and realized that if you didn't get something warm in your stomach immediately, you were going to freeze to death on the spot, and no one would find your body until the next thaw.
When it's very cold outside, the whole building steams. At night this tiny hut, this shack pressed up tight against the sidewalk on Broadway, glows like an apparition as the lights of the double-deck, dogleg shopping plaza that wraps around behind it shine through the peanut- and lemongrass-scented clouds. Handbills are plastered along its peeling white flanks: dying Honda Civics for sale, roommates wanted, apartments for rent, struggling local bands playing for beer money at unglamorous basement haunts, their names and logos photocopied onto cheap yellow and orange copy paper. There's a patio with two wobbly, crippled picnic tables out front, stacks of local papers held down with rocks, a laminated one-page menu taped up beside the window where you order. Taken altogether, the ramshackle structure is about as out of place in Boulder as a pig in church.
But step up to the window, and you're rolled under by a wave of good cooking smells carried on the back of warm, wet heat: mint and lemon, raw garlic, old smoke, the deep, blunt, sweet smell of curry and the nutty perfume of hot cooking oil. Now look through that window: A glimpse into Santa's workshop couldn't be more charming; sneaking a peek behind the curtain at the Great and Powerful Oz would be less revealing. The open kitchens that are all the rage -- those stages on which smiling cooks in starched whites glide around under dramatic point lighting, showing off for a room full of ravenous diners -- don't have anything on Kim's.
Not much bigger than your average office cubicle, this kitchen is packed on all sides with coolers, a double fryer, a hot table, cutting boards and bowls of tiny scarlet chiles, electric-green snow peas, carrots sliced paper-thin. A battered microwave sits on a shelf crowded with spices; a huge char-black wok is settled comfortably over one burner of an ancient two-top gas stove, blue flames licking up its sides. The only decoration is a washed-out calendar from an Asian import company hanging on the back door. The room is small, but somehow not cramped. The two women working inside this confining little box have developed an economy of movement that's more like a careful, courtly, well-practiced dance than it is cooking. (Sometimes a woman and a man share the space, and sometimes owner Kim Tran works by herself, but the action is always great to watch.)
A thousand sins can be (and are) committed behind the closed doors of kitchens, from minor offenses against the faith -- like a lazy fry cook using dank oil a day past its prime -- to cardinal violations better left to the imagination. But not here. At Kim's, there's nowhere to hide. Standing beside the window, I can see the fryer oil, and it's pure gold, clear all the way down to the heating elements. I can see the dish sinks, the cold tables, the absolutely fresh ingredients. I can see one of the women rolling spring rolls and hear the stiff, crisp thwack! as the other splits a head of cabbage down the center, quarters it and reduces it to shreds in seconds.
One cold night I stood on the patio, bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other while I waited for a cup of rich hu tieu tom cua, rice-noodle soup swimming with shreds of chewy pork, shrimp and crab meat. This proved a much better choice than a thin, watery wonton soup I'd tried previously, whose disappointing broth -- flavored only with dry minced onion and salt -- tasted like pieces of chicken and pork had merely been waved in its direction rather than actually included in the stock. The warming trend continued with a shrimp curry topped with crushed peanuts and made in the style of Southern India or Malaysia, its blend sweet and mellow, smoky on the back of the tongue and hot only as an afterthought. The curry was thin, orange-brown like the color of fallen leaves and packed with soft onions, slim wisps of carrot, and fresh shrimp, which were parboiled, then finished in the sauce.
Many curries scare people off, because heat and a little pepper kick are all they bring to the table. But curry powders -- the backbone of curry sauces -- are made from a complicated mix of twenty-odd spices that can vary dramatically from brand to brand and region to region. Except in the case of the Madras varieties, which are meant to be hotter, raw heat is usually a sign of a cheap blend flexing its chile spice to make up for a lack of depth. At Kim's, the curry is more delicate and sweet, letting clove, turmeric and nutmeg carry the flavor, yet still retaining enough muscle to pack a punch over a bed of sticky white rice.
That same night, I also sampled a workhorse offering from the Chinese side of the menu. In all honesty, I expected the sesame chicken to be awful -- or at least no more interesting than the gloppy, candy-coated junk ladled up at thousands of thoroughly Americanized Chinese takeout joints across the country. And while there was nothing remotely Chinese about this stuff, it was tasty nonetheless. The chicken was cut and battered fresh, fried to a perfect golden brown, then served in a refined maple-and-honey glaze whose sweet edge was tempered by white sesame seeds. It was light rather than overpowering, sweet but not sickening, and a surprise in the last place I expected to find one.
I've had appetizer orders of Vietnamese egg rolls from Kim's that were great and some that were not so great, but like pizza, sex or hot coffee on a cold morning, even a bad Vietnamese egg roll is still pretty good. But when everything goes right and you get them hot, right out of the oil, packed with chewy glass noodles and bits of sweet onion, they can be so addictive that after one recent trip to Kim's, I finished two of them before I was halfway home from Boulder -- so I turned around and went back for more. I'd been dipping them in some sauce left from the garlic shrimp and ran out of egg roll before I ran out of sauce, so what else could I do? Just throw the sauce away?
Waiting for my second turn at the window on a busy Saturday night, I had time to think about why I like Kim's so much. Yeah, the food is usually good and always incredibly cheap (the menu tops out at $4.99), but I've had a lot of good, inexpensive Vietnamese meals over the years, and I couldn't tell you the names of more than two or three of the restaurants where I had them. Sure, it's quick and convenient (if you're in the neighborhood), but quick and convenient don't matter that much to me; I'm just not that busy of a guy. And while everything at Kim's is fresh (out of necessity: Where would they keep a hundred heads of cabbage?), many well-known, big-name restaurants love making a big deal out of things on their menus being "market fresh."
No, I keep coming back to Kim's because there's nothing more natural, nothing more authentic, than the cooking being done here. In pictures I've seen of Vietnam, this is the way the women cook for their families. This is the way they cook in the markets and on the streets across Asia. Those images of food stalls and noodle stands; those snapshots of crowded markets stinking of durian, jackfruit, fresh animal blood; those pictures of stilt houses along black delta waterways choked with sampans -- all of these are with me when I find a place like this. A place where one person cooks from one wok, making nothing until the minute someone asks for it, doing everything by hand. There's a culinary absolutism at play in a scene like that, a naked simplicity that gets easily overlooked amid all the gustatory theme parks, all-you-can-eat buffets and corporate feeding troughs that spring up like weeds in every strip mall in every city in America.
Inside this tiny, bright spot surrounded by melting snowbanks and beneath a million stars, they're cooking food from half a world away just as it's been cooked there for as long as anyone can remember. In SoHo or Napa, this would be hailed as a stroke of genius, a bold proletariat blow against the corporate blah blah blah.... Put some culinary heavy hitter in that little box serving honest, simple, handmade fare for dirt-cheap prices, and the food world would go nuts.
But no one was going nuts here. They were just stopping by for a late supper, getting some soup, ordering egg rolls, watching the two ladies work. When my turn came, I stepped up to the window, closed my eyes for a second and inhaled the steam. Inside, the older woman smiled. She recognized me from earlier in the evening and asked if I'd forgotten something.
"Nope," I said. "Actually, it's something I just remembered."
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