A Westminster Wing Joint Surprises With Lao and Cambodian Specialties

Sometimes experience is the only good teacher. You can read about something, look at photos, have someone explain it to you (maybe even draw you diagrams), but until your own senses have taken everything in, what you’ve been told is merely a shadow on a wall compared to the reality. So when someone tells you about a place named Woody’s Wings N Things in an almost rural sector of Westminster that touts a menu of Buffalo chicken wings, hamburgers and even corn dogs but also cooks up home-style Cambodian and Laotian cuisine, your response, after an initial “Nuh-uh,” should be, “Well, when are we going?”

If you live near the tiny shopping center at the corner of West 68th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, you might have noticed the logo of a tray-toting chicken (in the Foghorn Leghorn style of cartoon poultry) obviously in a big rush to deliver the fried and sauced limbs of his feathered brethren to hungry customers. It’s the same logo you find at the two Woody’s Wings locations in Aurora, but the resemblance ends there (and a call to the Woody’s at 700 South Buckley Road confirms that there’s no tie between the Aurora originals and the Westminster outpost). A more telling feature of the signage is the cluster of flags representing the United States, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China and what was once South Vietnam; these give a clue as to what the “N Things” part of the name might involve.

If you live farther away and are heading to this corner specifically to experience Woody’s, the location seems isolated; even though it’s surrounded by subdivisions, you’ll pass farms, lakes and undeveloped lots before reaching your destination. Resist the temptation to give your GPS a thump, and simply trust the grid of streets that extends north and west from the heart of the city; Woody’s is located on the same Lowell Boulevard that cuts through the trendy Berkeley and West Highland neighborhoods of Denver.

Inside, Woody’s combines the ambience of a faded cocktail lounge — with crimson vinyl booths, ornate draperies and crystal chandeliers — with that of a quaint Asian bistro brightened with orchids and live bamboo. Despite an air of considerable age, the place is neat and tidy, with long rows of polished mirrors that extend the dining room into infinity on both sides and perfectly placed condiment caddies stocked with an impressive armory of sauces and seasonings.
The menu arrives with a thud; it’s a three-ring binder thick with crinkly plastic pages, like a teenager’s scrapbook. And those pages cover the same eclectic variety as a scrapbook, too, with photos of nearly every dish, from recognizable Chinese stir-fries and bowls and pho to mounds of beef or pork with simple descriptions that belie their origins and complex flavors. Flip to the final three or four pages for standard printed pages divided by recognizable categories.

Since you’re in what may be the only restaurant in the metro area that advertises Lao and Cambodian cuisine, those are your best bets. But the kitchen has been cooking up a nearly ridiculous variety of dishes for the better part of a decade, so anything from the recognizable body of Southeast Asian specialties won’t disappoint. The continuum of herbs, vegetables, sauces and cooking techniques that runs through northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and central Vietnam ensures that cooks can become proficient in multiple cuisines, even if some of the nuances of each region aren’t fully captured in every dish.

For starters, try the appropriately named Cambodian soup, with sour and bitter flavors, or nam ya noodles, which will appeal to fans of Thai curry. Anything with steamed sticky rice will capture the soul of Laos, as is the case with a familiar plate of green papaya salad. Crunchy strands of papaya are bathed in a tangy dressing with the flavors of fish sauce and fresh tomato at the forefront. A small steamer basket of sticky rice accompanies the salad; once it cools a little, feel free to use your fingers. The rice will hold together in balls, allowing you to pinch up bites of papaya.
There’s also an entire section of fried-rice plates, though there’s no indication of their nationality or culture of origin. My lunch companion and I chose sausage fried rice with a shrimp add-on, but the kitchen was out of sausage (Lao, Chinese? The answer will have to wait until a future visit), so we substituted pork. What arrived resembled the pineapple fried rice found in many Thai restaurants: a looser, softer rice than the sticky rice that came with the salad, sautéed with onion, tomato and a reasonable amount of the proteins we requested. This rice was stained a sunset yellow, indicating the use of turmeric, and a mélange of other spices made it aromatic and more deeply flavored than I’d expected.

I asked our waiter for suggestions for traditional Lao or Cambodian entrees, and he steered me toward waterfall beef, which I’ve had at several Thai restaurants. He also pointed out a few Chinese dishes common in Denver’s many Chinese takeout joints. As we thumbed to the page with the waterfall beef, a Lao beef larb (spelled “lab” here) caught my attention; the waiter told me I wouldn’t like it. I told him I probably would. He said it would be bitter. I told him I was intrigued. He mentioned that it would come with tripe. I promised not to send it back. After much dickering, he finally relented and put in our order.

He was right: The dish was bitter and the mound of thin-sliced beef was threaded through with delicate strips of tripe. The source of the bitterness wasn’t evident — it could have come from lime leaf, finely minced and unidentifiable herbs, or even beef bile, which is sometimes used in Lao cooking. Other herbs, primarily mint and cilantro, were roughly chopped and recognizable. A dusting of toasted rice powder gave each bite a satisfying, if slightly gritty, crunch. But I was also right; I thoroughly enjoyed the unique flavors and tender, just-cooked beef. And the bright pink and yellow shrimp crackers that garnished the plate added whimsy and more crunch.
This larb was clearly a separate entity from its Thai cousins, which generally pack a tangy punch from lime and fish sauce, and it also came with more sticky rice. Between the papaya salad and the larb, I felt like I’d had a good introduction to the Lao side of Woody’s. But there are plenty of Cambodian options if you come with enough company to sample more dishes and have the patience to leaf through the menu: beef loc lac, for example, and a whole section devoted to fried lort — short, fat noodles mixed with bean sprouts and your choice of proteins.

Yes, there really is a Woody’s; it’s no urban myth, no seemingly impossible culinary mash-up whispered about by Denver’s gastronauts. But the reality is not as outlandish as the stories might indicate: Woody’s is simply a pleasant, family-run eatery with an eclectic menu reflecting the cultural background of its owners. That just happens to have a big chicken as its mascot.