All Thai'd Up
The first step in dealing with an addiction to Thai food is admitting that you have a problem. The second is accepting that there are no more steps -- because who can contemplate a cure that bans curry?Chile peppers can be physically addicting, according to recent medical evidence. The reasons involve a lot of the same things that make drugs, sex and pork rinds such an issue in people's lives: It's all about endorphins. Eating a chile puts capsaicin (pronounced kap-SAY-ih-sin), the stuff that makes chiles hot, up against your pain-sensor nerves, and that in turn triggers the brain to release endorphins, those fabulous natural painkillers, which creates a sense of well-being. Since a sense of well-being isn't easily attained these days, it's not surprising that a subculture of chile addicts, known as chileheads, has formed around these vicious veggies. But the chile is bound for more glory than that, since research is now being done regarding its efficacy as a pain reliever -- work that's being thoroughly exploited by natural-remedies fanatics. (One recipe for chile candy is supposed to soothe chemotherapy mouth sores.) Still, enough of a correlation has been found between capsaicin and pain that the serious scientific community will get years and years of research funding.
That link could be corroborated by any diner who's ever made a box of Kleenex an impromptu centerpiece at a Thai restaurant. Just one bite of Thai curry is enough to remind you that chile is a big part of the cooking from this Southeast Asian country. But as hot as those curries can be, they weren't always a part of Thai cuisine. The chile was brought to Thailand in the sixteenth century by Portuguese traders; before that, Thai foods were flavored primarily with lemongrass, tamarind, ginger and garlic, with the hottest spicing coming from black pepper. But Thai cooks quickly made up for lost time, incorporating chile as a prominent part of many dishes, especially the curries -- spices mashed into a paste with garlic, peppercorns and ginger. They often did so using a technique they'd picked up from India -- in particular, southern India -- which uses coconut milk to cool a curry's heat.
Coconut milk isn't the juice from a coconut at all, but rather the liquid left over after you've soaked grated coconut in scalded milk or hot water. And while water does nothing to put out chile's fire -- you can't fight the fire in your mouth with water, because it simply spreads the chile molecules around -- any dairy product contains casein, a protein that breaks the bond between the pain receptors and capsaicin.
So you might want to bring a gallon of cow juice along for a meal at Thai Bistro, a six-month-old eatery that took over the spot in a busy Lakewood strip mall that was once home to Rocco's, an unlikely Thai/Italian combo. New owners Lek and Noi Phromthong, brothers from Thailand, don't speak much English -- but they sure know how to wok the talk. They've removed Rocco's excess of plastic plants and put some nice art on the walls; the result is a charming, casual spot for ingesting large amounts of capsaicin in peace and quiet. Like most Thai eateries in the States, Thai Bistro offers all of its dishes done mild, medium, hot or extra hot; it's this last designation that most closely resembles true Thai cooking. In this case, it's cooking from the southern part of Thailand, which also carries the flavors of Malaysia and India. So the curries here are heavily, and deliciously, sweetened with coconut milk, and the spices involve plenty of fenugreek leaves -- one of the primary smells emanating from curry --and cardamom.
The brothers use a lot of fresh ingredients, too. The plates bearing our spring rolls ($1.50 each) and shrimp rolls ($1.50 each) came decorated with freshly grated red and green cabbage and large sprigs of parsley. Even without the benefit of chile peppers, both versions of the rolls were addictive -- oily packages filled with cellophane noodles and teeny bits of cucumber and carrot, with wrappers so crisply fried they crumbled like delicate phyllo as we bit into them. But that just gave us more tidbits to dunk into the homemade plum sauce, a combination of nam pla (fish sauce) and palm sugar. For the steamed dumplings ($2.50), that sauce was made even more appealing, with just enough chile flakes added for oomph without obliterating the delicate flavors of the ground chicken, onion and garlic that filled the dumplings. While another appetizer, the deep-fried tofu ($2.50), didn't come with a sauce per se, it did have a juicy side salad of cucumbers, nam pla, chopped peanuts and shredded carrot.
Thai Bistro really poured on the heat for its entrees. We had ordered our panang curry ($10.95) extra hot, and with chicken. (On any entree dish, you get to choose between beef, pork, chicken or tofu at the same price, or shrimp, calamari or scallops for another $2.) In return, we received an enormous helping of super-tender chicken that had been wok-tossed with green and red bell peppers and fresh basil, with everything held together by a thick, rich concoction of fennel, coriander, lemongrass, galangal (a ginger-like root with its own distinct, savory-sweet flavor) thinned slightly with coconut milk. We chose beef for the stir-fried Thai spice dish ($8.95); the result was another huge portion of soft beef strips mixed with bamboo shoots, basil and a coconut-based curry paste to which extra chiles had been added. We also sweated through a red jungle curry ($8.95) and green curry ($8.95) that were excellent examples of these Thai specialties. The red jungle version had a sour note, courtesy of the lime leaves that balanced out the galangal; the green benefited not just from lime leaves, but also lots of garlic.
Thai Bistro does milder dishes well, too. On a return visit for lunch, we ordered the obligatory pad Thai ($5.25). Thai Bistro's take featured rice noodles that were still firm -- more like true al dente Italian ones than the usual mush -- combined with medium-to-large shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, green onions and ground peanuts, along with tofu that again had been deep-fried to a nice golden crust with a creamy center. The roast duck in wine sauce ($8.95) featured plush slices of roast duck in a rich, red-wine-spiked brown sauce further deepened by the earthy flavors of shiitakes and broccoli.
Addiction problem? What problem?
The next time we decided to Thai one on, we ventured over to Thai in Cherry Creek. Like Thai Bistro, this eatery is just six months old; unlike Thai Bistro, it's owned by one of the original partners in Busara, the upscale Thai joint on Market Street in LoDo. Bryan Chunton decided to sell his shares of that business to his brother, chef Suchat Chunton, and open his own place, which sits in an awkward, below-street-level space in Cherry Creek. But while Thai in Cherry Creek doesn't aim for the lofty dining level of Busara, it still hits plenty of high points. Bryan Chunton does most of the cooking, creating his own curry pastes from scratch and putting big flavors on his small menu. Unfortunately, the custom-made curries can be time-consuming and often make for slow service -- but your patience is amply rewarded.
Like Busara, Thai in Cherry Creek excels at soups: tom yum goong ($3.95), with shrimp swimming in a chile-fired, lemongrass-heavy seafood-based broth, and the creamy, sweet-and-sour tom ka gai ($3.95). The starters are the best dishes coming out of the kitchen, though, and the appetizer sampler platter ($17) gets you all six. Our favorite was "curry-laced chicken golden cups" -- corn-fritter-like vessels filled with potatoes and shredded chicken redolent with ginger. Disappearing almost as quickly were the steamed dumplings, filled with savory shrimp and crabmeat and jicama, a surprise texture; the crispy dumplings, stuffed with cilantro-enhanced shrimp; and two spring rolls, one a fresh rice-paper version with tofu, the other deep-fried to crispy and filled with still-crunchy vegetables. The only disappointments on the platter were the two satays, chicken and shrimp, which were both dry and overcooked. But the creamy peanut sauce, thinner and wonderfully devoid of the cloying candy taste that mars this sauce at other Thai eateries, worked wonders on the satays. The other starter sauces -- a not-too-sweet plum sauce, a mellow tamarind, a slightly sweet ginger soy and a chile-flecked cucumber dip -- also showed off the kitchen's skill.
Those sauces had nothing on the intense mixtures that came with the entrees, however. The country-style crispy whole fish of the day (market price, which in our case was $18.95 for sea bass) had been fried a bit too long, rendering the seabass's normally succulent flesh rather stringy -- but we could have eaten anything with the accompanying three-chile, three-alarm sauce, which was sweet and spicy, with the consistency of jelly and a tantalizing but not overpowering chile bite. More fiery yet was the sauce on the goong cho chee ($12.25), which paired well-cooked tiger prawns with chochong curry -- if there was more to it than chile, our overheated taste buds couldn't tell -- as well as kaffir (not "kariff," as the menu says) lime leaves and coconut cream, a heavier designation of coconut milk. Even the simpler dishes were made special by Chunton's homemade curries: a sharp red on the kang puk ($9), vegetables and tofu in a mouth-searing, garlic-heavy sauce; and a well-melded massaman ($10) that added the welcome and somewhat cooling element of avocado to the typical potatoes, peanuts, shallots and chicken.
Although Thai of Cherry Creek's servers had their hands full and were sometimes hard to flag, once they stopped, they were unstinting in their praise of both the restaurant's food and its owner. And you can hardly blame them -- not for their enthusiastic endorsements of the food, not even for the haphazard service.
A true chile addict -- and proud of it -- I'd happily feed my habit here any day.TThai cooks quickly made up for lost time, incorporating chile as a prominent part of many dishes.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.