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Phat Thai doesn't need to be authentic, just good

Pork buns at Phat Thai can be gummy, not yummy.
Mark Manger

I never expected Phat Thai to be an authentic Thai restaurant.

When Mark Fischer opened his spot in Cherry Creek in December, it was clear from the start that Phat Thai is not a Thai restaurant — in fact, the restaurant's website says as much in capital letters. And as the menu explains, "Phat Thai is a curious breed of southeast Asian eatery offering imaginative food and tasty drink inspired by our travels to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and beyond: deliciously unpronounceable dishes, intriguing standards, street food & some gringo interpretations."

So, no, I never expected Phat Thai to serve authentic Thai food. But I did expect the food it serves to be delicious.

After all, Fischer owns Six89, a restaurant so good that it's worth the several-hour trip to Carbondale. That town is also home to the original Phat Thai, which offers some Thai staples — tom yum gung, green papaya salad, whole fish — as well as more playful dishes that take region-defining flavors and repackage them. My meals there made me eager to see what Fischer would do when he brought the concept to Denver.

And last year he finally inked a deal on a space on Second Avenue that's been a graveyard for restaurants, fast-casual and full-service alike. He exorcised the demons through an extensive remodel, stripping the walls down to the architectural bare bones, adding a warm yellow-and-orange color scheme, playing up the light-wood accents and floors, and transforming the cavernous space into two sleek, open levels centered by a bar.

Soon after Phat Thai opened, I stopped in for a quick lunch and ordered the kaeng kiew wan. Warned by both my server and the menu that Phat Thai food is spicy, I opted for a medium heat level. But the server would have done me a favor to warn me off the dish altogether: The green curry was wan, pasty and floating with overcooked hunks of chicken. And rather than heat, the overriding feature was a saccharine sweet note, perhaps from too much coconut milk. No matter how many chiles I added from the little bowl that tops each table, I couldn't fix this mess — so I finally gave up, and satisfied my green curry craving at another Thai restaurant in town.

A few weeks ago, I was meeting a friend in Cherry Creek, and the time seemed right to give Phat Thai another try. Fischer was in the kitchen that day, which gave me hope that the food would be better. We nabbed a booth facing the bar, and while my friend asked for one of the craft beers the restaurant pours on tap, I ordered a Singha; it just didn't seem right to drink anything else with Thai food, no matter how inauthentic that food might be.

Our waiter was a weird one: He didn't miss a beat with timing, markings or any technicality of service, but it was obvious that he didn't want to be there. He was unenthusiastic about the menu, exceedingly casual with our table, and unapologetic for such flubs as a beer delivered flat. We liked him for his brutal honesty — but if I were a restaurateur, I wouldn't want to employ someone who clearly hasn't bought into my concept. We did take his advice, though, and ordered a round of dishes he approved of, adding items like coconut rice on his recommendation. This time we got no warning about heat levels, even when we ordered a few things labeled "spicy."

He soon delivered our first course: steamed buns and a platter of slow-roasted pork belly, topped with shreds of cucumber and carrots and sided with a soup-spoon full of sriracha-laced hoisin sauce. The pork belly was decadent, tender and ribboned with fat; the sweet-tart sauce, with just a breath of heat, was an ideal complement. But the buns needed help. They were gummy in some parts, soggy in others.

Next up was the spicy Thai beef salad: a pile of cabbage mixed with crisp bean sprouts, bits of mint, tons of cilantro and beef, all coated with a chile-lime dressing. Although the menu had called this dish spicy, the only suggestion of heat was the cabbage's fiery orange hue. And the beef was so leathery that I abandoned the salad as soon as the spicy duck arrived. This bird was a definite improvement, even if it, too, was overcooked and tough. Chunks of the duck had been mixed with sweet red and green peppers, mushrooms and scallions and tossed in a soupy hoisin-and-sriracha sauce that finally offered at least a tingle of spice. But I couldn't find any gai lan, even though the broccoli-like vegetable had been advertised as part of the dish.

Further — and delicious! — distraction came in the form of beef short ribs. Massive hunks of velvety braised beef had been coated in sweet-spicy XO sauce and sprinkled with minced scallions; they sat in a pool of coconut curry swimming with snap peas, mushrooms and slices of red bell pepper. Paired with sweet, creamy coconut rice, the dish layered earthiness with a subtle heat and a palate-cleansing, lime-tart finish. This exquisite combination was just what I'd expected to find at Phat Thai: Although you'd never encounter the actual dish in southeast Asia, it still captured the flavor of the region as well as the creative spirit of Fischer's cooking.

After clearing those plates, our server promptly brought our check — at which point we asked if we could see a dessert list. He shrugged. "I'd go down the street for dessert, honestly," he said. "But I guess the brownie's popular."

We ordered it, and he was right: We should have gone down the street. The dry, crumbly brownie had been topped with a scoop of vanilla and a sprinkling of peanuts and coconut to make it slightly Asian, I guess.

No, I didn't expect Phat Thai to be authentic, but I did expect it to be delicious. Aside from the pork belly and short ribs, though, Phat chance.

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