In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
Technically, my next meal should be at Lao Wang Noodle House -- but I needed a few extra mouths to help me explore that menu and couldn't pull enough people together in time to stick with strict geographical order. And since J's Noodles Star Thai shares a wall with Lao Wang, the few inches of drywall and cinderblock that separate the two are hardly a barrier for cuisine swapping -- not when compared with the many hundreds of miles and the South China Sea that come between Thailand and Taiwan.
If you're so inclined, you could probably stretch a noodle between these tiny restaurants and share it like those two dogs in Lady and the Tramp, with each end soaked in the sauce of its mother country and an international kiss in the middle. But I skipped the kanoodling and, in fact, skipped the noodles altogether -- perhaps the only time I've ever done so at a Thai restaurant.
J's Noodles boasts a menu big enough to veer from the standards -- like the pad Thai and drunken noodles I generally can't resist -- without being intimidating in scope. I had my mind set on jungle curry, though, mainly because I love the wicked sear and slightly jarring spice blend of this soupy curry, but also because I recently discovered I'd been eating it wrong (if such a thing can be said). The last time I was at a Thai restaurant, I ordered jungle curry with a seafood blend of shrimp, mussels and squid. It wasn't until afterward that I learned jungle curry is a product of northern Thailand where seafood is less common. Pork is a more traditional choice, so this time I went with pork.
I can't say that jungle curry with seafood is unnatural or oddly off-putting (at least, not like the hackle-raising abomination of pizza topped with cheddar cheese), but maybe the flavors of the individual mollusks and crustaceans do get lost a little amid the riot of flavors that squawk for attention in a good jungle curry broth. Pork holds its own and absorbs the alternating harangues from medicinal kaffir lime, sharp galangal and strident chile with grace and ease while melding with the rich, savory base of the sauce.
The fried catfish cakes (tod mun) also feature kaffir lime leaf, which permeates the chewy patties in a floral, soapy note. But a touch of the sweet-and-sour dipping sauce that accompanied the dish brought the flavors back into balance. Tod mun look like typical American bar food -- browned and seemingly crisp from a bath in hot fat -- but most aficionados of all things battered or breaded and fried would be disappointed in the almost leathery texture of the exterior and the fine-grained catfish mixture that lends a definite bounce to each bite. Still, once you set aside preconceptions, these little disks hold a certain addictive quality and go great with a cold beer (although maybe not so much with the blood-warm glass of red wine my wife received).
A second appetizer -- a rough-chopped larb salad with ground chicken -- was a good palate refresher, with amazingly crisp romaine lettuce and tangy flavors of fish sauce, mint, cilantro and lime juice. Amy also put her noodle craving on hold and instead ordered pineapple rice, a dish that never even makes my eyes pause while drifting across the pages of a Thai menu. We were both surprised at the depth of flavor of such a deceptively simple combination. A wonderfully meaty sauce saturated every grain of rice while plentiful morsels of beef, pineapple, cashews and vegetables added layers of flavor and moisture. At J's, pineapple rice is a perfect example of the vibrant balance I love about Thai cooking. A dish like this could easily be dull, oily or heavy, but the fresh ingredients and deft use of spices elevated a rustic mound of mixed rice to a thing of elegance. Besides making me forget about noodles, the cooks at J's also converted me to Thai dessert, thanks to the Thai custard and sticky rice doused in sweet coconut milk (we passed on the variation called "Sweet Lips," which also includes coconut ice cream). After the barrage of spices and textures from the rest of the meal, the caramelized, almost bready custard and dense scoop of rice were the perfect transition to ease away from the hidden Thai island of J's Noodles and back into the shimmering blacktop of Federal Boulevard on a warm May evening.
Ultimately, I'll always prefer noodles over rice, but it's great knowing that a noodle shop wedged between two other noodle shops can turn out a few satisfying dishes based on foods that don't even feature in the name of the restaurant.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.