Suvipa Thai didn't have to do much to make its dining room presentable for guests: a new coat of paint in the small, square room and some flowers on the tables, and everything was ready to go. The previous tenant, Pho De, had already painted over the lime green and sky blue of Lotus Vegetarian, which must have gone through a couple of buckets of primer to cover the burgundy and black of Vietnam Grill, which had occupied the space only two years ago.
If the aromas from the kitchen are any indication, that's where all the work has been done: Suvipa Thai is as dedicated to putting out dead-on versions of its owner's homeland cuisine as the three restaurants that came before it. That cuisine just happens to be Thai this time instead of Vietnamese.
For the month of November, I'll be exploring Denver's Thai kitchens, with a specific focus on pad Thai. Some may think that's a boring choice; it's not a particularly ancient or traditional dish or a recipe that families have passed from generation to generation. In fact, pad Thai is a fairly modern creation with its roots in street food. But it's also the one dish that captures the spirit of Thai cooking: the pungent depth of fish sauce, the savory tang of tamarind, and the interplay of fresh herbs, searing peppers and earthy peanuts.
Suvipa Thai is too new for me to judge quality based on its reputation or on the potential throng of customers packing its tables. But a nice, inexpensive dinner doesn't have to be from the hottest joint in town to be enjoyable. On the night Amy and I stopped in, the quiet buzz of conversation and the clatter of plates and silverware had already begun; there were enough customers to keep the server busy without having to call for backup. Interestingly, the people who were eating when we got there were still lingering as we were wrapping up, picking over leftovers and, in some cases, even ordering more food.
Part of my pad Thai mission is to order "Thai hot" at each stop: I want to have a common gauge to measure all of the dishes, and Thai hot seems to be the one constant that will ensure uniformity across restaurants; it's a phrase that seems to be shorthand for "This is the way people eat this dish in Thailand." Also, I just love blazing hot food, at least when it's well-balanced by other elements. I'm not necessarily going for the hottest possible version, though -- Suvipa also offers a "super-Thai hot" that I declined.
My order of Thai-hot pad Thai was met with a by-now familiar look of doubt and wonder. "Okay, wow," the server replied. "I cannot handle Thai hot." But she was more than happy to put in our order, along with an appetizer of curry puffs, petite stuffed pastries with flaky layers and a filling of potato and lentil, similar to Indian samosas but with a lighter crust.
The pad Thai came soon after, wafting the distinct smell of fish sauce. Combined with other ingredients, fish sauce doesn't smell exactly fishy; the aroma has more in common with the boats and nets that catch the fish, and the seas from which the fish are hauled. The flavor is equal parts salt and age and a kind of mouth-watering something that Westerners find enticing in Worcestershire sauce.
Suvipa's pad Thai isn't sweet or sticky; the peanut flavor comes from actual diced peanuts and not a gooey sauce. The nest of noodles hide more fat, pink shrimp and crisped chunks of tofu than are at first apparent to the eye. Scallions, bean sprouts and lime do their part to cool the intense heat of the chiles. But it's not a tongue-searing heat; it's a slow-building, all-body heat that requires an extra napkin or two but doesn't enter the realm of painful. In short, it's just right.
I admit to a certain amount of daredevil giddiness about spicy food; I don't like the idea that an entire country somehow has it over me when it comes to eating a certain way. As often as not, though, restaurant staff in Thai eateries will claim to like their food milder than the hottest offering on the menu. Short of traveling directly to Bangkok and sampling the street food there firsthand, I can only go with what Denver's kitchens have to offer. Suvipa's version balanced bright and flavorful -- which is ultimately all I really want.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.