For decades, Denver diners have assumed that an ethnic eatery must be a dive in order to be authentic. But three months ago, Busara opened its doors, raising Thai food to a whole new level.
Things are looking up.
The people behind Busara--the name's literal translation is "blue topaz," but it can also be interpreted as "pot of gold"--come from a long line of Thai restaurateurs. Chef/owner Suchat Chunton and his brother, Busara manager Bryan Chunton, learned their craft from their father, who worked at several Italian and French restaurants in New York, including the original Mezzaluna, after moving to the United States from Thailand in the Sixties. Before that, the Chunton family operated street carts and small stores that served food, which Bryan Chunton says is the norm in his native country. "You don't see very many big, upscale restaurants, although there are more now than there were," he adds. "When a restaurant is not a little street thing or a little shop, then it is usually a very, very big restaurant in a hotel, seating four or five hundred people."
While that was a few more tables than the Chuntons were willing to take on when they decided the Denver market was ready for an upscale Thai place, they knew they wanted to replicate the more elegant feel of those hotel restaurants. They also wanted to offer the type of food found at Thai hotels, a balance of dishes from around the country with an emphasis on layered flavors; they'd already been serving such fare successfully at their New York eatery, Kun Paw, for the past decade.
The former LoDo home of Pasta Jay's proved the perfect spot for their venture. The airy, exposed-brick space, with its fresh flowers, white-linen-covered tables and breezy trompe l'oeil wall paintings, provides a worthy setting for the striking and visually enticing food. But the food's not as strikingly spicy as it would be in Thailand, or even New York. Bryan says the family quickly discovered that they had to tone things down a bit for Denver diners. "The thing here is that there are some foods that people just aren't interested in," Bryan says. "Like the Thai eggplant, which is very bitter, is not for Denver. And true Thai food is not really too sweet, and that's what I've found most Denver Thai restaurants serve. And sometimes it's spicy, the way it should be, but more often not."
But at Busara, more often than not, the food has spice to spare. The appetizer "Blue Plate" ($14 for two)--an actual blue plate covered with a selection of the restaurant's starters--included three dipping sauces that were well-melded, chile-sparked versions of the traditional Thai condiments rather than the sugary goo you often find in this country. The thin plum sauce was supposed to go with the crispy spring rolls, its tartness offsetting the deep, earthy flavor of the tofu, shiitakes and glass-noodle stuffing inside wrappers so layered their papery leaves fell off like phyllo. But the almost-greaseless rolls also went well with the soy-ginger sauce--so heavy on the ginger that we could hardly recognize the soy base--intended for Busara's shrimp-filled steamed dumplings. The third sauce was a creamy, chile-sparked peanut concoction, designed to go with both the chicken sate and the "golden triangle," crispy wedges of tofu. But while the ginger-marinated bird--two skewers' worth--was so succulent it could stand on its own, even the sauce couldn't help the tofu triangle. It was dry and chewy, rather unpleasant-tasting and nearly inedible.
That was the only tarnish on two otherwise golden meals, however. Even the simpler items shone. The tom kha gai ($4 for a small) was a modest take on the traditional chicken coconut soup and lacked the usual big chunks of lemongrass and galangal, but it had a nice chile bite and a freshness lent by plenty of cilantro. A second soup, the tom yum ($4 for a small), was more complex: A fiery blend of citrusy-tart lemongrass and lime leaves permeated the large shrimp and straw mushrooms.
And the entrees boasted even bigger flavors. The pad talay, or "sea of love" ($15), combined shrimp and squid with shiitakes and shallots, all imbued with a mouth-shockingly spicy roasted-chile sauce. The chiles were so searing that taking a bite almost hurt--but it hurt so good, because beneath all that heat was a deep, seafood-based liquid that made the dish more heaven than hell. In the gai yang ($10), the chile bite was more direct: It was all in the marinade on the roasted, crispy-skinned grilled chicken and was easily subdued by an accompanying sweet, tropical chile sauce. All the entrees come with well-cooked jasmine rice, which was particularly helpful in absorbing every last blob of the sauce on the catfish ($8.95). Big, soft chunks of the fish, along with Asian eggplant, bamboo shoots and Thai basil, were awash in the keo wan, a traditional Thai green curry sauce that featured the deep sweetness of coconut milk as well as a curry paste heavy with cumin, mace, coriander, lemongrass and cilantro.
At lunch, noodle bowls are also available. Pad Thai ($7.95) is a common offering on Thai menus, but this version was uncommonly good: A fair amount of sharp, sour tamarind made the classic sauteed rice noodles with peanuts and sprouts less sickeningly sweet and more sophisticated. (The pad Thai may also be ordered as a vegetarian dish.)
Denver has waited a long time for upscale, elegant Thai fare, and the Chuntons came a long way to bring it. The result is a real pot of gold.
Glendale is just a few miles from LoDo, but more than distance separates Busara and Bangkok Grill. While the former has brought something new to Denver, Bangkok Grill offers more of the same--but offers it better than most, even if its low-key, strip-mall home makes it look like just another Thai joint. Owner Jackie Booncharoen and her chef son, Jimmy, had a roster of Thai restaurants in California, where Jimmy's sister still runs things, when they decided to move to Colorado two years ago. "We came here because we'd heard that the market was good," says Jimmy. "And it has been, but the labor problem seems to be even more of a factor, because at least in California, we have a good pool of Thai people to choose from to work in our restaurants."
Although Jimmy was born in Thailand, he was raised in California, where an uncle once owned 25 restaurants. Jimmy trained in many of them. "After a while, I felt like I knew enough that we could do it, so I told my mom to open one," he says. "These are her recipes that she's been working on forever."
Practice makes perfect--almost. Sometimes the dishes on Bangkok's small menu can be inconsistent. For example, on one visit the pad Thai ($6.95) was a fresh, if unremarkable, mishmash of shrimp, chicken and eggs in a standard peanutty sauce; on another it seemed to have been made ahead and reheated, because the flavors were dull and the noodles dry and dyed a deep orange. But other dishes showed a level of polish you rarely find. The pla goong ($7.95) was an intense hot-and-sour shrimp jumble with very bold flavors, including mint, that would rule it out for more timid palates. More fresh mint, rather than cilantro, was tossed into the well-assembled larb ($6.95), but it was a welcome addition to the lime-based, chile-dotted, tender-beef salad. It was also cooling--and we needed to rest our tongues between slurps of two very hot (as in chiles) soups. The tom kha gai ($3.50) needed more coconut milk but had the added touch of fresh tomatoes and plenty of straw mushrooms. And the tom yum goong ($4.25) sported the addictive sourness of lime juice.
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The curries are the real stars at Bangkok. My favorite was the yellow curry with chicken ($6.95), which held big, smooth pieces of potato colored yellow and soaked with the partly sweet, oniony curry. The red curry with chicken ($6.95) was more potent but also less refined than the yellow, and the chiles worked a little too hard against the garlic, lime leaves and lemongrass. The panang (I've also seen this dish as padang) ($6.95) was an exotic, even odd, blend: Green bell and pimiento peppers gave the curry a somewhat bitter vegetable flavor that detracted from the richness of the sauce. Less ambitious was the house fried rice ($6.95), a straightforward, non-greasy mix of egg, onions, peas, carrots and beef that gained a strong, meaty flavor through grilling.
Bangkok Grill proves that ethnic dives still have their charms, even if they're rarely good as gold.
Busara, 1435 Market Street, 303-893-2884. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday.
Bangkok Grill, 4978 Leetsdale Drive, Glendale, 303-333-2272. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.