Cafe Society

A Bright Spot

Kim's is not the kind of place where anyone goes on purpose the first time. It's the kind of place you almost always find by accident. A happy accident, as it turns out.

Maybe you discovered it through that annoying vegetarian ex-girlfriend, who always seemed to have a takeout box of Kim's sautéed tofu in rich, dark tomato sauce knocking around the back of her fridge. You'd end up sharing it with her in the middle of the night, eating it hot right out of the only pan she owned, and even though she pretentiously refused to call it by anything but its proper Vietnamese name -- dau hu xot ca -- and horribly butchered the pronunciation every time, the memories of that tofu are the only high points remaining from an otherwise doomed relationship.

Or maybe it was simpler than that. Walking home from the library on some frigid afternoon, you may have come upon the takeout joint with its name, Kim's Vietnamese and Chinese Cuisine, stenciled in faded blue on the front wall and realized that if you didn't get something warm in your stomach immediately, you were going to freeze to death on the spot, and no one would find your body until the next thaw.

When it's very cold outside, the whole building steams. At night this tiny hut, this shack pressed up tight against the sidewalk on Broadway, glows like an apparition as the lights of the double-deck, dogleg shopping plaza that wraps around behind it shine through the peanut- and lemongrass-scented clouds. Handbills are plastered along its peeling white flanks: dying Honda Civics for sale, roommates wanted, apartments for rent, struggling local bands playing for beer money at unglamorous basement haunts, their names and logos photocopied onto cheap yellow and orange copy paper. There's a patio with two wobbly, crippled picnic tables out front, stacks of local papers held down with rocks, a laminated one-page menu taped up beside the window where you order. Taken altogether, the ramshackle structure is about as out of place in Boulder as a pig in church.

But step up to the window, and you're rolled under by a wave of good cooking smells carried on the back of warm, wet heat: mint and lemon, raw garlic, old smoke, the deep, blunt, sweet smell of curry and the nutty perfume of hot cooking oil. Now look through that window: A glimpse into Santa's workshop couldn't be more charming; sneaking a peek behind the curtain at the Great and Powerful Oz would be less revealing. The open kitchens that are all the rage -- those stages on which smiling cooks in starched whites glide around under dramatic point lighting, showing off for a room full of ravenous diners -- don't have anything on Kim's.

Not much bigger than your average office cubicle, this kitchen is packed on all sides with coolers, a double fryer, a hot table, cutting boards and bowls of tiny scarlet chiles, electric-green snow peas, carrots sliced paper-thin. A battered microwave sits on a shelf crowded with spices; a huge char-black wok is settled comfortably over one burner of an ancient two-top gas stove, blue flames licking up its sides. The only decoration is a washed-out calendar from an Asian import company hanging on the back door. The room is small, but somehow not cramped. The two women working inside this confining little box have developed an economy of movement that's more like a careful, courtly, well-practiced dance than it is cooking. (Sometimes a woman and a man share the space, and sometimes owner Kim Tran works by herself, but the action is always great to watch.)

A thousand sins can be (and are) committed behind the closed doors of kitchens, from minor offenses against the faith -- like a lazy fry cook using dank oil a day past its prime -- to cardinal violations better left to the imagination. But not here. At Kim's, there's nowhere to hide. Standing beside the window, I can see the fryer oil, and it's pure gold, clear all the way down to the heating elements. I can see the dish sinks, the cold tables, the absolutely fresh ingredients. I can see one of the women rolling spring rolls and hear the stiff, crisp thwack! as the other splits a head of cabbage down the center, quarters it and reduces it to shreds in seconds.

One cold night I stood on the patio, bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other while I waited for a cup of rich hu tieu tom cua, rice-noodle soup swimming with shreds of chewy pork, shrimp and crab meat. This proved a much better choice than a thin, watery wonton soup I'd tried previously, whose disappointing broth -- flavored only with dry minced onion and salt -- tasted like pieces of chicken and pork had merely been waved in its direction rather than actually included in the stock. The warming trend continued with a shrimp curry topped with crushed peanuts and made in the style of Southern India or Malaysia, its blend sweet and mellow, smoky on the back of the tongue and hot only as an afterthought. The curry was thin, orange-brown like the color of fallen leaves and packed with soft onions, slim wisps of carrot, and fresh shrimp, which were parboiled, then finished in the sauce.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan