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Sugar and Spice

Denver's restaurants are multiplying so rapidly that businesses are forced to take on staff members who clearly aren't qualified, just so they have enough bodies to get the food out. I'm tired of being waited on by irritated eye-rollers who make it clear that they think their jobs are only a minuscule step up from slavery, that they consider your presence an intentional attempt to humiliate them, and that they would much rather be somewhere--anywhere--else.

To which I say: Then, please, go there.
In the meantime, I'll be at Wild Ginger, an inviting Thai eatery where the affable, courteous staffers radiate a genuine love for their jobs. This place is sugar and spice and absolutely everything nice. From the second we walked in the door, we were made to feel as though the employees really wanted us there (and since the restaurant isn't hurting for business, it's not as though they needed our dinner tab to pay the bills the next day). It was a delight to be thanked for coming--as we entered!--and smiled at warmly. They clearly enjoy what they're doing, and they do it very well indeed.

This space was formerly occupied by Thai Orchid, which enjoyed a few years of popularity and established a reputation for savvy Thai creations. Nan Rehathorn and Sam Damrongsang bought the place six months ago, renamed it Wild Ginger, and called on Damrongsang's nephew, Ben Niamthet, to redesign the dining room. Niamthet obviously has good taste. He stuck with a few warm colors--mustard and a light sienna--but did away with the laminated tables, stripping them down and refinishing them for a more natural look. Then he added a couple of eye-catching statues and beautiful, regal wall hangings imported from Thailand, as well as a collection of stylish native serving bowls, plates and spoons. Although the atmosphere is informal, it's also intimate; Niamthet devised dividers that separate the chair seating from the unusual floor seating and bolstered the latter with colorful, comfortable cushions from Thailand.

Unless you have a bad back or smelly feet, go for the floor. We did, and found ourselves quickly ensconced on comfortable seats elevated two steps off the ground, so that our shoes could rest on one step and the servers could sit next to us to take our orders--all the while asking if there was anything, anything at all, that we needed.

Well, since they asked, about a hundred more meals at Wild Ginger.
While Rehathorn serves as hostess and watches over the charming waitstaff, Damrongsang cooks the food. And it's more than a match for Wild Ginger's service, since Damrongsang takes traditional Thai fare and adds creative twists that actually improve on old favorites. For instance, the deep-fried soft-shell crab ($5.95) that started our first meal came covered with an inviting crust of tightly packed crumbs rather than the usual batter. The crust had an appealing caramel color and a great crunch that worked well with the steamy, juice-squirting crab inside. In keeping with the Thai emphasis on fresh, edible, intricately carved garnishes, the dish was adorned with cold, crisp carrot flowers and bright-green broccoli. Like the crab, the veggies benefited from a dip in the accompanying "house sauce," which was soy-based and flavored with garlic, shallots and chiles.

Damrongsang is particularly skilled with sauces, snubbing the conventional--and easier--bottled stuff in favor of flavorful homemade concoctions that carry a better balance of sweet, sour, spicy and salty. The sweet-and-sour sauce that arrived with the two fried egg rolls ($4.25) lacked that sickeningly sweet quality that pours from most bottles and instead boasted a mellow, well-blended chile heat. The rolls themselves were packed with ground seasoned pork and shrimp, with just enough cellophane noodles added for texture.

A broth, rather than a sauce, is what made our third and favorite appetizer, the steamed mussels ($5.65), so stunning. Eight huge green-lips had been steamed with lemon grass and basil leaves; the combination of licorice, lemon and liquid from the mussels was exquisite. Basil also gave extra depth to the thick, coconut-based curry sauce of the panang ($6.95). We'd opted for the tofu version (with most of the entrees, you get a choice of chicken, beef, pork or tofu; shrimp costs $1.50 extra) because I like the contrast between squishy tofu and crunchy peanuts and I appreciate the way soy cubes sponge up an intense sauce like panang. And this sauce--I'd ordered it medium-spicy, since truly spicy Thai food could eat through cement--was worthy of appreciation. The gai yang ($6.50), half a chicken roasted until crisp-skinned, then chopped into pieces, came with another excellent sauce, this one a barbecue-style mixture, thick and slightly sweet, with a faint touch of tamarind. Again, we'd ordered the dish medium-spicy, and the sauce proved an ideal dunk for big, juice-dripping chunks of chicken.

One more perfect sauce topped off our perfect meal: a caramel drizzled over a pile of batter-dipped, deep-fried, cinnamon-dusted banana slices ($2.95).

When we returned for a second visit, the Thai sausage ($5.25) was the surprise starter: fat chunks of grilled pork sausage stuffed with whole cloves of garlic that, believe it or not, were a pleasure to bite into. The mildly spicy sausage tasted as though it had been grilled at low heat, allowing the cloves to roast inside and permeate the great, crumbly meat with the flavor and scent of garlic. More pork--this time little balls of it--had been stuffed into tiny rice wrappers for the steamed pork dumplings ($2.50), which came with a simple soy sauce teeming with chile seeds. The peanut sauce that came with the satay ($4.25) was unusually thick and peanut-buttery, not too sweet and barely spicy--but I liked it, especially slathered over the basil-flecked chicken strips. And I loved the tiny salad of pickled cucumbers and carrots sparked with jalapeno slices.

Jalapenos were not what I expected to find in the tom kha gai ($4.95), the ubiquitous spicy Thai soup of chicken, coconut milk, galangal and lime leaves or lemongrass--but rarely jalapenos. So I bit into a long green strip thinking it was a green bean, and--surprise! When I could taste again, I found that the soup was light on coconut milk and had more of the flavor of plain chicken stock but was still delicious. Another soup, rice with chicken ($1.75), must be a Thai grandmother's version of Jewish penicillin. The stock was as strong as that of any chicken noodle I've encountered, packed with small bits of chicken, lots of rice and an Asian touch of scallions, which made it seem even healthier. Had I known I was going to come down with strep throat a week later, I would have bought a gallon of the stuff.

We rounded out that meal with a wonderful calamari salad ($6.95) full of chilled, tender squid parts soaked with a spicy lime dressing and a papaya salad ($5.25) of shredded green fruit mixed with chiles, garlic and the same lime dressing.

By our third visit, the staff was treating us like regulars (and here I'd thought the service couldn't get any friendlier). And the food was consistently superb.

An order of massaman curry ($6.95), a specialty of southern Thailand, brought tofu (again, our choice) swimming with potatoes, mushrooms and onions in a mellow curry tweaked with ground roasted peanuts. The pad se-lew ($6.95) featured wide rice noodles absolutely soaked with a sweetened soy sauce and tossed with slightly crunchy broccoli and little bits of scrambled egg. This time dessert was Thai custard ($1.95), a Thai take with coconut milk added to the eggs and slivers of palm sugar arranged like a flower in the center of the timbale shape.

But the icing on the cake came at our departure. As we walked through the dining room and headed for the door, every Wild Ginger employee we passed stopped whatever they were doing, gave us a big smile and said, "Thank you so much."

Back at you, Wild Ginger.

Wild Ginger, 399 West Littleton Boulevard, Littleton, 794-1115. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday.


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