The mystery of Asian food is that it looks so easy to make. What's so tough about throwing cut-up vegetables, bits of meat and a few spices into a big, overheated vessel and cooking everything until it's edible?
But appearances can be deceiving, as recent meals at two newer Asian eateries attest. Swing Thai and Stir Crazy Cafe, which debuted within two months and seven blocks of each other along Alameda Avenue, both look great, but so far, dining at either has not proved to be a stirring experience.
Opened last December by partners Prakan Chotinun and Jay Dedrick -- the pair originally worked together at Vail's Siamese Orchid; Chotinun moved to Wichita to start his own joint before Dedrick talked him into coming back to Colorado -- Swing Thai is a clean, funky place whose look fits its name and belies the building's gas-station origins. The only indication of this spot's previous life is the odd, narrow parking lot that once held the pumps. That and the fact that it's still easy to fill up -- fast and cheap -- at Swing Thai.
Swing Thai, 301 South Pennsylvania Avenue, 303-777-1777. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Stir Crazy, 290 South Downing Street, 303-777-8922. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday
You order at the counter, then either wait in line for your food or sit down at one of the small tables, where a staffer will bring your meal when it's ready. Dedrick handles the front of the house and Chotinun the kitchen, which offers a roster of simple Thai combinations that each cost no more than $6.50 (plus another buck if you want shrimp) and can be assembled and cooked in ten minutes or less.
There are two dangers inherent in this concept: When an eatery's on a budget, it's easy to bulk up a dish with rice or noodles; and fast-paced kitchens often tend to make a lot of little mistakes. The drunken noodles ($7) offered evidence of both pitfalls -- lots of thick, soft rice noodles had been mixed with a little bit of egg, six broccoli flowerettes, one pale tomato wedge, five small shrimp and none of the basil leaf promised on the menu, which would have given this otherwise bland combination a little flavor. We'd ordered it mild -- all preparations can come mild, medium or hot -- but not that mild. The Swing special ($6.50) also suffered from kitchen snags: The dish contained three very thinly cut slices of beef and a lot of totally raw -- not-even-warmed-by-the-sauce raw -- vegetables (green bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, baby corn and straw mushrooms) in a "fresh garlic sauce" that didn't taste of garlic.
But Swing Thai also produces its share of hits. The pineapple fried rice ($5.50) was plain but flawless: rice, eggs, pineapple, a sprinkling of yellow curry and four thin shreds of pork. The tasty red curry ($6.50) featured coconut milk (hard to go wrong when that's involved) and plenty of basil leaf that had soaked into the large slice of tofu we'd chosen as our protein. Since there were only two pieces of totally raw vegetables -- a chunk each of red and green bell pepper -- in this dish, we were able to ignore them. Unfortunately, it was easy to ignore the curry's heat factor, too: Swing Thai's idea of hot is not so hot.
And on two visits, its appetizers have left me positively cold. Although the chicken satay ($3.50) boasted a fine peanut sauce, with plenty of peanuts and none of the usual cloying sweetness, the poorly grilled chicken strips were so dry and chewy that we skipped the meat altogether and started eating the sauce with a spoon. The crispy vegetable rolls ($3 for three), filled with vermicelli, carrots, black mushrooms cabbage and no liquid at all, were so dry they were like crunchy little pillows stuffed with cotton, and the lackluster chile sauce on the side provided no relief. The fresh spring rolls ($3.50), on the other hand, kept oozing water from the bottom, where the rolls were still warm, as though they'd been made ahead and left sitting on the stove -- which would also explain why the tops of the rice paper had dried out and returned to their original crunch. The result was downright unsettling: The heat had made the cilantro and mint leaf overpower everything, and it also started to break down the cucumbers, which in turn started leaking water onto the plate. Yuck. And the plum sauce intended for dipping was inedible -- it made me think of hairspray.
Even dessert was a disappointment. The grease-drenched fried bananas ($3) tasted like they'd been tossed in a fryer with fish and chicken nuggets -- and someone had added a few drops of chile sauce to the honey water that we were supposed to dip the fruit into. Surprise!
Looking back into the tiny, bustling, steam-filled kitchen, it wasn't hard to imagine how such snafus occur. The kitchen is so tiny, in fact, that much of the prep work actually occurs in the dining room, where we watched two employees preparing string beans at one table while another cracked eggs in front of the soda machine so she could toss the shells into the large-mouth garbage can next to it. (Isn't that a health-code violation?) Then again, there's something appealing about being in charge of your own dining destiny. Once we'd ordered and paid for our meals, it was up to us to refill our Cokes, grab extra napkins and even find lids to turn our plastic plates into containers for leftovers.
That appeal grew during a two-hour lunch at the nearby Stir Crazy Cafe. Opened three months ago by chef Danny Ly, this attractive space had previously been occupied by Jacob's Bagelry and then a gourmet takeout spot called What's Fresh & Wild. When Ly took it over, he repainted the dining room a warm rust color, filled it with black tables and chairs and placed iron cutouts in the expansive windows that showcase the traffic on Downing Street.
Too bad that bustle doesn't carry over into the kitchen. The service staff is far from swift: Nearly every detail, from extra place settings to drinks, had to be spelled out for the servers, and on one visit we sat for ages in a deserted dining room, hoping someone -- anyone -- would bring the check.
Although Ly and his sister, Susie, are originally from Vietnam, Susie says that before they moved here, her brother owned a Chinese eatery in California. That's probably why, more often than not, even the Vietnamese dishes at Stir Crazy are of the heavily cornstarched variety, thick and goopy, with more sugar than spice.
Anything nice about the food here? The appetizers, for starters; while they came to the table sporadically, they were worth waiting for. The potstickers ($3.25 for four) arrived fat with ground-pork filling and served with a ginger-packed soy dipping sauce; the crispy Vietnamese egg rolls ($3.95 for two) boasted more oniony ground-pork stuffing and a chile-flecked nuoc cham sauce. The Asian summer rolls ($3.50 for two) were large and well-wrapped rice-paper packages with several pieces of shrimp in each (the accompanying peanut sauce, however, was far too sweet). And while the coconut shrimp ($4.50) had been overcooked, leaving the four butterflied crustaceans dry and hard to chew, the coconut coating was delicious.
The soups had obviously been freshly made, although they, too, suffered from the over-thickening that so often befalls Chinese cooking in this country. The egg flower included corn that was a little chewy for such an otherwise velvety concoction, but the hot-and-sour featured a well-proportioned balance of sweet and sour, with plenty of vegetables. Because the soups, along with fried rice and a spring roll, are included with most Stir Crazy entrees, lunch can be quite a bargain -- as long as you have more time than cash. But many of the wok-tossed dishes also come up short on flavor.
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The best dish we tried was the pad Thai ($5.95), which didn't include any extras -- but it was so good we didn't miss them. The Thai noodle classic was heavy on peanuts and light on sugar, and although the bean sprouts far outnumbered the two shrimp, four pieces of chicken and one piece of beef on the plate, the overall effect was one of balance and good taste. But the Mongolian beef ($4.95) was all onions and salty, goopy sauce over chewy, chewy meat, and the combination lo mein ($5.95) tasted like nothing more than plain noodles, despite the inclusion of one piece of shrimp, two pieces of chicken and one piece of beef. So much for balance. The lemon chicken ($4.95) sported a sauce so thick it was almost like icing, and underneath it was chicken that was nearly impenetrable with a fork -- I had to ask for a knife in order to dissect this bird. So much for good taste.
On a return trip for dinner, we found higher prices but no increase in food quality or quantity. The orange chicken ($7.95) cloaked another tough cutlet in more citrus icing, this one billed as spicy. It wasn't. And the teriyaki-glazed fish filet ($10.95) wore one of those overly sugary teriyaki sauces that set my teeth on edge. The fish was dry, too, as was the beef in the satay entree ($7.95). (Someone needs to turn down the heat under that wok.) The satay came with a "sweet and spicy" sauce that was far too sweet and thick for the unbelievably moisture-free meat. Only one dish was a keeper: the pineapple curry prawns ($8.50), medium-sized shrimp dressed in lots of pineapple and the least-sweet sauce we tried at Stir Crazy, a fiery red curry.
Dessert wasn't bad, either. The mango raspberry cheesecake, Key lime pie and brownie chocolate cheesecake ($3 each) were all thick, heavy and rich, but at least they tasted like they were supposed to.
Both Swing Thai and Stir Crazy look great -- but looks can be deceiving. Both places offer no more than a wok on the mild side -- and in the case of Stir Crazy, that's one very slow, very hot wok.