Looking through the open window into the closet of a kitchen, the first thing you see is the top of her black-haired head, and before the front door closes, her smiling face pops up in greeting. Someone else takes you to one of the tables in an adjoining room, but it's hard to forget that smile. It's so welcoming, so sincere, so...nervous. Arawan "Noy" Farrell is still anxious about her first restaurant, Taste of Thailand.
"It's hard when you are starting, because it is a lot of work and people complain when it's something they haven't had before," says Farrell, a former cooking instructor for Colorado Free University and the Seasoned Chef, among others. "They say the meat isn't the way they like it, the food is too spicy, it's too this or that. But I'm learning what makes people happy."
Those lessons didn't come easy. When Farrell opened last August, Englewood's water had been tainted by a shingle fire, and she wound up not only serving her diners bottled water but using it for all of her cooking--including steaming, washing vegetables and making soup bases. "Talk about expensive," she remembers. "And extra work. Everyone was very good about it, though."
That's probably because they'd tasted her cooking, which comes straight from rural northern Thailand, where Farrell--the Irish last name comes from her American husband--grew up. She was teaching an English class there in 1984, when her boss asked her to go to Boston to help Asian refugees acclimate to the United States. Although Farrell enjoyed her new duties, cooking was always her favorite pastime.
"In Thailand, you might not find a husband if you don't know how to cook," she says, laughing. "And they don't have food processors, so everything is done with a mortar and pestle." In this country, Farrell says, she uses her food processor all the time, but it certainly doesn't show in her dishes. Many of them have the decorative, perfectly carved look of work done by a professional chef--which is exactly what Farrell turned herself into when she moved to Denver with her teacher husband four years ago. "I love to show people how to get the most out of the food you have on hand," she says. "It's fun when they realize how nice food can look, and taste good, too."
Nice-looking and good-tasting--that describes nearly everything that came out of the kitchen during our Taste of Thailand meals. Even the complimentary starter at lunch, simple as it was, fit the bill. The name "peanut sauce appetizer" barely prepared us for the thick, spicy sauce that accompanied a bowl of fancy-cut carrots; it was addictively nutty and creamy and went well with not just the carrots but later with rice, a variety of veggies, even a finger or two. Its inclusion alone made the $5.25 "curry lunch combo" deal one of the best bargains in town.
The rest of the combo consisted of jasmine rice, a deceptively uncomplicated soup--tasting strongly of cauliflower, cilantro and carrots--and more than adequate portions of not one, but two lunch entrees (choices vary daily but always include one of the curries). We tried the masaman curry, a nasal decongestant of a mix--coconut-milky and chock-full of chicken, potatoes, onions, carrots, green peppers and that crucial Thai ingredient, peanuts. Everything had been neatly diced, and the vegetables tasted as though they had been pulled out of the ground that morning. The pad see ew, rice noodles stir-fried (pad) with eggs and vegetables coated in a chile sauce, was billed as containing broccoli and bean sprouts, but it actually included much more: green peppers, onions, cabbage, carrots and, of course, peanuts. "I like to use whatever I have that day, and I mean that day," Farrell says. "That is the important thing I am always teaching my students. You should use what is around, not what some recipe calls for."
Her reasoning got a good workout with the pad kra pow ($4.75), which revolved around potent purple basil (kra pow) mixed with straw mushrooms, carrots and cabbage as well as unexpected strips of red and green bell peppers, broccoli, onions and eggplant. "I create, and sometimes I grab something that might work," Farrell explains. "You learn what will taste good together and complement each other." She was right on the mark with this stir-fry; the extra ingredients proved great vehicles for the basil and the strong garlic sauce.
The dishes we tried at dinner remained truer to their descriptions but were no less wonderful. We were disappointed that the kitchen was out of the Sleeping Beauty Shrimp, Farrell's own creation of deep-fried shrimp wrapped in ground meats and noodles. ("At first, you know, we had a lot of friends who came and ate, and we were very busy. But now, not so many people come, and I was throwing away a lot of shrimp," she later explains.) So we consoled ourselves with the excellent satay ($6.75), pieces of chicken and pork marinated in a spicy coconut sauce before being grilled on skewers. The peanut sauce made a welcome reappearance on the side, along with a zesty liquid fueled by cucumbers. A more unusual sauce came with the miang khum ($6.25), an appetizer tray of paper muffin cups filled with roasted peanuts, toasted coconut, sweetened ginger, dried shrimp, crushed chiles and chopped red onion, all of which were supposed to be rolled into iceberg lettuce leaves and dipped into an infusion of greater galangal (yes, there is a lesser version). Galangal, also known as Thai ginger and laos (when in powdered form), is a gingerlike root with a hot, peppery taste and a reputation for soothing upset stomachs. Also hungry ones.
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We were soothed by more galangal in the tom kha gai ($2.25 per person), a true Thai blend of sweet, sour, salty and spicy--chicken, straw mushrooms, onions and lemongrass in a fiery coconut milk. The same balance had been brought to an entree of cashew chicken ($7.75) in which roasted nuts and tender meat shared space with pineapple, onions and roasted bell peppers. The som tum ($7.75) offered salty dried shrimp to counteract the shredded green papaya that had been tossed with a sour-and-spicy sauce of chiles and limes.
But by far the most impressive melding of tastes at Taste of Thailand was in the seafood clay pot ($12.95). Rice noodles black from squid ink had also soaked up the essences of shrimp, scallops, lemongrass and dark soy sauce, and the whole delicious mess--a huge portion--was served up in a beautiful clay vessel. An order of pad Thai ($7.75), on the other hand, brought the most food I've ever seen heaped on one dinner plate. Farrell's version is fairly traditional--rice noodles, eggs, shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts and peanuts--with one notable exception: It's not as sweet as most. "I am a Thai-Thai, if you know what I mean," she says. "I'm not mixed with Chinese; I'm only Thai. So I cook only Thai." Farrell's referring to the fact that Thailand has a large Chinese population that has influenced the country's cooking styles. "Thai people by nature are not sweet-loving people," she adds. "We prefer it to be equal to everything else."
This doesn't mean that Farrell dispenses with desserts entirely. Taste of Thailand offers exactly one: a scoop of rich coconut ice cream (75 cents) that was just the right ending for a spicy meal.
Not that we needed it. By the time dessert came around, we were already pretty sweet on a Taste of Thailand.