Fit to be Thai'd: In the late Seventies, the area that would later become known as LoDo was a vast culinary wasteland. There was the Wazee Supper Club, at 1660 15th Street, and Mori Japanese Restaurant, at 2019 Market Street, and not much in between other than beer-and-a-shot joints and, for a very brief time, a good Thai restaurant housed in what would become the yet-to-be renovated Oxford Hotel's Sage Room. In the twenty years since then, of course, lower downtown has been flooded with eateries serving every kind of food imaginable. Except Thai.
Last summer, the ill-fated Hi Ricky, at 1318 15th Street, offered allegedly Thai fare as part of its upscale-Asian-street-food theme, but the restaurant itself hit the road after only a few months. So Busara (see review above), which would be a welcome addition to any dining scene, filled a real void in LoDo.
The rest of the metro area, however, is studded with good Thai eateries. Although most are casual hole-in-the-wall types like Bangkok Grill, one personal favorite has a more elegant feel. At Wild Ginger, 399 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton, the surroundings are lovely, the service is superb, and the deep-fried soft-shell crabs are delectable, as is the gai yang, half a roasted chicken with a Thai barbecue sauce. Also in Littleton is the odd Thai/Italian combo Rocco's Restaurant & Deli, at 5924 South Kipling. One side offers meatball subs in a deli setting; the other is a colorful, comfortable Thai eatery that does dinners for under $6. (Check out the stuffed-squid appetizer.)
A few other worthy suburban Thai joints: Taste of Thailand (504 East Hampden Avenue in Englewood), Thai Landing (11101 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora) and Vientiane Garden (7113 Sheridan in Westminster). Taste of Thailand is run by Noy Farrell, a former cooking instructor, and her well-balanced dishes owe their allegience to northern Thailand. (The fiery "flu shot" soup will scare the germs right out of your body.) Vientiane cooks up Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese foods, but the Thai dishes (especially the fish cakes) are by far the best of the lot. Thai Landing does good pad Thai, as well as a bargain lunch buffet for $5.
The best Thai-based lunch buffet is at Thai Kitchen (8135 East Colfax Avenue), where just $5 buys all you can eat of twenty items, including fresh sushi, killer curries and Filipino fare. The nicest people run the place--they don't speak very much English, but they try hard--and the tom kha gai is excellent. Closer into town is the tiny Tommy's Thai (3410 Colfax Avenue), which also does delicious tom kha gai and pad Thai.
But the town's best pad Thai has to be at J's Noodles (945 South Federal Boulevard), which also cooks your sate at the table. J's pad Thai boasts that ideal balance of sweet and spicy, with a creamy, rich sauce that keeps everything wet without being goopy. And the very best tom kha gai comes from the very first Thai restaurant in the country, Chao Praya Thai, at 5411 Quebec Street in Commerce City. (That short-lived Thai place in the Oxford was a branch of this eatery.) The space looks as if several restaurants were thrown together to make one, and the service can be iffy, but the chicken coconut soup is unbeatable: spicy, lemony, coconut-milky and packed with chicken.
There's more new Thai in town, too: Swing Thai, at 301 South Pennsylvania. Stuffed into a converted garage, Swing Thai offers Thai fast-food style, with a dozen types of noodles and stir-fries and an emphasis on curries. You can get them mild, medium or hot, with your choice of meats or tofu, and it's all cheap. Decide what you want before you get in line, though, because the crowd can get ugly if you take too long. I stopped by for lunch the other day and was in and out in a half-hour, after having wolfed down a bowl of intense green curry with rice and shrimp ($5.95).
None of these Thai restaurants offer the eclectic dishes available at Busara, however. And one of those, yum talay, a salad of blanched squid and shrimp, you can now make at home. When I tried the recipe Busara generously provided, I was blown away by the dish's great taste and simplicity.
First, though, there's that squid issue. Squid can be found at gourmet grocers and Asian markets; the former will clean it for you, but the price is nearly double. If you want to clean it yourself, start by grabbing the head and tentacles and pulling them and the squid's innards away from the body. Cut off the tentacles and discard the head and the little ink sac behind it, then pull off the cartilage ball attached to the tentacles and discard that. Stick your fingers into the body and pull out the soft bone (it looks like a shard of plastic); it may fall apart, so be sure to get all the pieces. Using a sharp knife, scrape the edges of the mottled skin until you can grab it with your fingers and peel it off. Rinse the remaining squid in cold water, and you're good to go.
Busara's Yum Talay
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
2 Kaffir lime leaves, julienned
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
1 tablespoon crushed palm sugar (you can substitute brown sugar)
3 fresh or 2 dried bird's-eye chiles, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons shallots, coarsely chopped
1/2 pound fresh shrimp, shells on
1/2 pound fresh squid, or frozen and thawed, sliced into rings
Combine lemongrass, lime leaves, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chiles, cilantro and shallots in a bowl and set aside. Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the shrimp and squid for less than a minute (do not overcook). Drain in a colander and rinse under cold water. Mix with sauce and serve immediately over a bed of greens. Serves 2-4.
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Welcome back: There are still way more Mexican joints than Thai ones in this town, but I herald the return of La Casa de Manuel to its new location at 3158 Larimer Street (which has a parking lot, by the way). Owner Manuel Silva opened the doors on March 10 after a lengthy search for a new site; he had to close his old spot this past December, when the landlord abruptly terminated the lease he'd had for forty years. Get over there for a great bowl of green.
More changes are in the offing this month, when John Psyllas finalizes his purchase of Ogden Street South (103 South Ogden Street), a venerable neighborhood watering hole that served decent Greek. An anonymous employee promises the sale will be a huge change for the better, even though Psyllas hasn't owned a restaurant before.