At two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, the place was hopping, the staff was clearly in the weeds and people were starting to pile up at the door, scanning for available seats in the dining room or at the bar. Luckily, there was just enough turnover that a line didn't form; with steady snow and temperatures well below freezing outside, the door had to stay shut to keep in the warm air and the good-natured clamor that was completely hidden to anyone in the parking lot. A sports bar at the height of a big college football game or maybe one of those trendy new microbreweries that are popping up all over Denver? Not even close: We were at Thai Pot Cafe, an innocuous strip-mall joint that happens to be a favorite in the Virginia Vale neighborhood just off the main drag of South Colorado Boulevard.
Sure, there were a couple of TVs showing football games -- nothing local -- but nobody was really paying attention. Instead, they were intent on big bowls of tom kha coconut soup, heaps of noodles and bright hued piles of stir-fried vegetables in various sauces. Coats and gloves were strewn about and red-faced toddlers waddled between tables, content with strips of satay chicken and a reprieve from mummifying layers of winter garb.
I was in the mood for something warming, too: a slick plate of raging-hot pad Thai, the kind where your mind slips into a light trance to deal with the shock of the hot chiles, allowing you to keep eating despite muted transmissions of pain from the tongue to the brain. And so I ordered my rice noodles Thai hot and threw in a beer, just in case.
I usually try to order something new -- something I've never tried before -- at restaurants I've never been to. This time it was an appetizer of Thai sausage, which came arranged haphazardly on a plate with slivers of raw ginger, whole peanuts and tiny cross-sections of an unidentifiable pepper. The sausage was pink and fatty like a good Polish kielbasa, only with a lively note of lemongrass in the mix. I wasn't quite sure how to combine the disparate ingredients on the plate, so I just threw mixed handfuls of sausage, peanuts, ginger and peppers into my mouth in various combinations until I hit the right ratio. The little slices of pickled green chiles packed some vicious heat for their size -- just what I was looking for.
When the pad Thai arrived, it was decidedly tamer than the appetizer. In fact, I could barely detect the presence of heat at all, although the noodles were coated in a pleasant if mild sauce and the shrimp were nicely cooked, with some good searing from the pan. The absence of heat allowed the flavor of the wok to come through, though: subtly smokey and with a hint of iron. It was the unmistakable taste of a well-seasoned pan and it made up for the lack of spice. Still, I was craving heat, so after a few bites I sprinkled on some chile powder from the condiment jar on the bar.
By the time I was done, the place had cleared out a little, giving the waitstaff a chance to relax. Despite a heavy afternoon crush, they were all smiles as they went about cleaning up the wreckage and bringing me a final beer. I didn't find my Thai hot dish of noodles, but the peppers on the sausage plate and the extra heat from the condiment caddie (I also hit the chile-garlic sauce and the pickled jalapeños pretty hard) put a nice buzz on my tongue and lifted my spirits as I prepared to go back out into the snowy day.
The college football games on the TVs and the crush of Easter egg-colored fleece and Gortex from the neighborhood crowd made Thai Pot seem more like an all-American grill than a Thai restaurant, but the flavor of the wok in the Pad thai and the rustic intensity of that sausage plate pushed the suburban vibe aside long enough for the kitchen's true colors to shine.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.