Cafe Society

Fit to Be Thai'd

Nearly every Cafe review elicits responses from readers who agree or disagree, but one in particular inspired an unusually heavy load of negative reactions: my critique of Wild Ginger ("Sugar and Spice," January 15, 1998).

Eighteen months ago, I loved everything about the place. Unfortunately, one of the things I loved was the intimate feel of the small, family-owned spot--and Wild Ginger simply couldn't handle the crowds generated by my rave review. On the several times I'd stopped by over the past year, though, the restaurant seemed to have worked out the kinks. But then the complaints started coming in again a few months ago, so I made a return visit.

This time I found very little to love. The service was sloppy and harried--an abrupt about-face from the previous cordial efficiency--and the food frequently missed the mark. One of my favorite dishes at Wild Ginger had been the deep-fried soft-shell crab ($5.95), which featured a coating of tightly packed breadcrumbs rather than the usual batter. But now I found the breading was greasy and crumbled off at the slightest touch, and the plate came without its former garnish of carrot flowers or broccoli. The crab itself was a measly specimen hardly worth yanking from the sea.

Fortunately, the egg rolls ($4.25) were as tasty as ever, with plenty of seasoned ground pork and shrimp, and the Thai sausage ($5.25) was still delicious, mildly spicy and filled with whole garlic cloves. But the steamed mussels ($5.65) were chewy and had an off taste; the exquisite broth I'd remembered was now a bland, watery liquid missing the fresh basil that had given it such a great licorice taste. The biggest disappointment of the starters, however, was the rice with chicken soup ($1.75), what I'd called a Thai grandmother's version of Jewish penicillin. This time I'd call it Campbell's version of Thai soup. The broth had once been pumped full of chicken; this time I couldn't find a shred of the bird's flesh.

There was a fun little mixup regarding our entrees: We were supposed to get the panang ($8.45), a coconut-milk-based curry dish, and the gai yang ($6.50), half a roasted chicken, but instead we wound up with the next table's meal, and they got ours. When we realized the error, we told the server, who belligerently informed us that this was what we had ordered. The couple at the next table heard us talking and told the server that they had our food--at which he looked at all of us, said, "Oh, sorry," and walked into the kitchen. We switched plates on our own and laughed it off, but the server never did come back: The tight-lipped hostess took our plates and our money.

We hated to pay for those dishes, though, because they were awful. The chicken was dry with an overcooked skin, and the once-delectable barbecue-style sauce now contained so much tamarind that it was like drinking a bottle of Chanel No. 5. And when we'd said we'd pay an extra $1.50 for shrimp in the panang, we thought we'd get more than two. I'd ordered it medium-spicy, but the kitchen apparently tried to balance out its other bland dishes--was there a recent basil shortage I didn't know about?--by putting enough chile heat in the thing to make it rival battery acid.

I hate to say it, but the readers who said my old review was wrong were right. Judging by the surliness of the staff, there must be something going on behind the scenes at Wild Ginger, and it's giving the food a bad taste, too. This town has far too many good Thai spots--including the ever-popular, complaint-free Tommy's Oriental, at 3410 East Colfax Avenue, which is owned by the same folks who own Wild Ginger--for us to put up with this one.

Wild Ginger, 399 West Littleton Boulevard, Littleton, 303-794-1115.