Taste of Thailand has the cure for the flu -- and the cure for boring food
They were giving away irises at Taste of Thailand the other day — free to a good home, free to anyone who wanted to take away a little beauty.
I was too late to get one; the cardboard box that had held the plants was empty. But the restaurant was full — of customers, of employees, of other items for sale. More flowers, handmade paper, little trinkets and gift-shop baubles, croaking frogs made of wood, shiny shorts of the sort worn by Muay Thai fighters. The tiny lobby-slash-souvenir store was crowded with presents and papers, with takeout orders lined up along the low counter; crowded with security guards coming off shift and an ambulance crew about to go on, but wanting a good meal first; crowded with servers sorting through the knot of people waiting for seats in the small dining room next door, servers moving quickly, coming and going through the doorway between the lobby and the floor, the floor and the kitchen. The air was heavy with the smell of hot woks and oil and peanuts and garlic. It was prime time at Taste of Thailand — which meant it pretty much could have been any time.
Taste of Thailand has been crowded almost since the day it opened in 1994, when Rick and Noy Farrell decided to see what Denver thought about eating real Thai food, unaffected by latitude, by cultural drift. Noy had come to Denver by way of Boston and Boston by way of rural northern Thailand, where she was born and learned how to cook, to love food. She was an English teacher in Thailand, and it was teaching that brought her to the United States, to help Asian immigrants assimilate into a new, alien world. But it was food that kept her in touch with her roots and her people, holding the smells and flavors of her youth close even from thousands of miles away.
I'd read about Noy before I'd ever eaten here, about the kitchen she's been running for fifteen years, the garden she's been tending for nearly as long. I'd read Rick's blogs about how produce from that garden makes Taste of Thailand's cuisine unique (in Denver, at least) and about Noy's cooking classes, her lessons on how the Thai people deal with the multitude of herbs and fresh ingredients that form the backbone of the rustic end of the canon. I'd read about the flu shot soup that, over the years, has become a tradition at this restaurant. From October through March, it is one of the most popular dishes on the Taste of Thailand menu: a rich broth, packed with chicken dumplings and fresh vegetables often taken from the ground just hours, occasionally minutes, before. There are people in town who swear by this stuff, who attribute to it near-mystical powers. Doctors and nurses from Swedish Medical Center fire it down fast, often settling into the dining room still dressed in their scrubs, mixing with families and friends of those being seen to on the opposite side of Old Hampden Avenue.
And this year, because of the demand, because of the flu (swine or otherwise) being so much in the news, Rick and Noy decided to rush their soup onto the menu. There was no reason not to; the garden was certainly cooperating. So they taped a small blue sign to the front window announcing that flu shot soup was being served early this year.
The response has been huge. On a Saturday night, pressed close against the lobby wall, I looked out into the dining room and saw that half the tables were set with bowls of flu shot soup. On a Tuesday afternoon, stuck waiting because I'd unwisely shown up 45 minutes after opening as opposed to, say, 45 before, it was on almost every table: little bowls and big bowls, as an appetizer or an entree.
While so many restaurants bill themselves as green, boast of their seasonal, organic, local and market-driven menus, Taste of Thailand is not just seasonal, not just market-driven, but garden-driven. Rick and Noy use their plants the way cooks do in Thailand — at all stages of their life cycle, pulling young basil and herb shoots one day, mature plants another. They decide on the compositions of some of the dishes in the morning, while poking around the higgledy-piggledy mess of plants. (According to Rick, they don't plant in rows, don't organize or separate their stock, but just grow a little bit of everything wherever they feel like putting it.) Mint looks good? There's going to be a lot of mint on the plates that day. How about young basil, or garlic in all its stages? It's an interesting way to make a menu, a more interesting way to run a kitchen. No dish tastes the same from week to week, sometimes day to day. All those chefs out there who brag about going to the farmers' markets and pulling their supplies straight from the fields? Taste of Thailand, with its ever-changing specials and tight menu, its tiny dining room and waits at the door, is what they are really reaching for. The restaurant where intent becomes reality.
At dinner Saturday, I skipped the flu shot soup because I was hungry for something more substantial and less...medicinal. Looking over the menu, I figured my body could hold out a couple more days on its sushi and bacon and beer and dumplings diet. It had become acclimated, after all. Eating healthy might be as much a shock to my system as eating kittfo, foie gras, shrimp heads and three meatloaf sandwiches a day might be to a normal person's.
So I asked for satay, because it is one of my favorite simple foods and because Noy brushes hers with sweet coconut milk before serving. The satay came with a handmade spicy peanut sauce that was merely okay, and a bright and vinegary cucumber sauce that was fantastic. After that, I had chicken dumplings wrapped like shumai, like beggar's purses stuffed with ground chicken, two kinds of garlic and little jewels of cooked carrot. They were small enough to eat whole, and I did, not even bothering with the decency of chopsticks.
The masaman curry was thin as water and almost tasteless at first. Poured over rice served out of the big silver tureen, it seemed to disappear between the grains, the big chunks of potato and curls of simmered beef remaining behind as though they'd been sieved. Expecting the thicker, sweeter, more punch-in-the-face directness of the curries to which I have become accustomed over the years, I was disappointed. But after a few bites, my opinion changed. The curry had a subtlety, a dim background sweetness that, rather than overpowering, allowed the bright spikes of red chile and curry paste to blink through, the flavors of soft onions and fresh carrots to add their own savory notes. It was unusual, yes, but after finishing two plates, I decided that I kind of liked it.
So I had a third, just to make sure.
Noy, Rick and their crew focus primarily on Thai comfort food, on traditional family-kitchen preparations of dishes that might not have been classic fifteen or twenty years ago in America, but are certainly mainstays today: pad Thai, drunken noodles, larb salads. But I skipped all that and went for the street food, for the Thai party grub: whole fried fish (a specialty of the house, ordered in advance by a lot of Noy's regulars) and garlic squid, spring rolls made with pork and bean thread noodles and fresh herbs. Kow pad kra prow is a use-up-the-leftovers concept; Taste of Thailand's version was a beautiful and fragrant jumble of fried rice studded with egg and broccoli florets, garlic and basil from the garden, sautéed chopped onions, hot chiles, cabbage, carrots and small shrimp, roughly shelled, tossed in with their tails still attached. It was delicious — the kind of dish that made me want to buy some disreputable shirts, go to Thailand and squat beside a river, eating this with my fingers while the night lit up behind me and I contemplated getting up to nothing but trouble. As only certain Asian foods can, the particular spice architecture inspired thoughts of both good times and larceny. It was a damn lucky thing I didn't have my passport.
I was back for lunch on Tuesday and joined the people waiting on the sidewalk out front, craning their necks to see inside, wondering how long it might be before they could eat, wondering if they should nibble from the small window box full of fresh herbs in the meantime. I was finally seated at a back corner table, where — in imitation of the tables all around me, the two doctors by the window, the two nurses next to me, the guy with the bum foot on one side and the two men discussing lung cancer and addiction recovery just beyond him — I at last ordered a bowl of flu shot soup.
The broth was fragrant, heavily spiced with fresh garlic and diced ginger root, with tiny flakes of red Thai chiles and bits and pieces of other plants that I couldn't name on a bet and which Noy won't name for strangers. This is her secret recipe, after all, a Thailand home remedy that she contends can both cure the flu (if given a few days) and prevent it altogether; a bowl or two can make you healthy and then keep you healthy, provided you come back for regular top-ups, she says. More important to me, though, the soup was ridiculously delicious. The garlic was powerful and savory, the ginger its balance on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum. There was red chard unlike any I'd had before — tough and hardy, not coddled, not kind, with a peppery aftertaste and taking some effort to chew — and planks of carrot that had retained their vegetable sweetness even after cooking in the spice-heavy broth. And the dumplings — similar to the dumplings on the app menu but smaller, their thin, drifting skins filled with ground chicken — had sponged up all the flavors of the two dozen or more ingredients, secret and otherwise, and seemed to burst in the mouth like tiny chicken-and-garlic-flavored bombs.
It was a great soup — both rustic and controlled at the same time, skillfully balanced and deeply comforting, a perfect showcase for the backyard garden that informs so much of Noy's cuisine. As for those health claims? Well, I haven't sniffled yet.
But should the worst happen and I come down with some kind of mutant form of (no doubt bacon-borne) H1N1, Noy Farrell's garden will be the first place I go looking for relief. I may not get cured, but I know I'll get great food.
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