Two days later, I found myself wandering a much different stretch of Colfax Avenue -- in the neighborhood that's home to Mezcal, Atomic Cowboy and that crowd -- and stopped in for a big lunch at Tommy's Thai (3410 East Colfax). Tommy's is at the other end of the spectrum from Yummy Yummy, in terms of both crowds and culinary adventuring. And I enjoyed my meal there a lot less.
There are some things about Tommy's I really like. I like the plates, and the tin mess-kit cups that water comes in. I like the comforting pastels in the dining room, which is painted like a day ward at the booby hatch. The prices are great (nothing over ten bucks), the service quick and friendly, and Tommy's also does catering, which means that if a situation should ever arise when I urgently require, say, 200 vegetable gyoza dumplings, I know just where to go and how much cash to have on hand: $104, plus tax.
But the food was snore city.
Tommy's is a Thai restaurant for people who love the idea of eating out at hip, urban, ethnic eateries, but who are also afraid of accidentally rubbing elbows with any ethnic people not bussing up their plates. In the trade, we've got a name for people like that: We call 'em foodies. And Tommy's -- which also attracts plenty of perfectly normal, well-adjusted neighborhood people out for a harmless plate of pad thai and not looking to get into any nasty socioeconomic slap-fights with a cranky restaurant critic -- is an ideal place to keep them. It caters to a crowd that wants all of its "Oriental" cuisines to taste vaguely similar: a sweet-and-sour chicken not so different from Sriracha beef, and a curried fish Thai-style unrecognizable from a curried fish done Vietnamese. Let these foodies stay at Tommy's, eating their asbestos curries, their bland stir-fry and perfectly straight and sober kra pow "drunken noodles." Let them go where there is no threat, no excitement, no adventure -- where the tiny shu mai are all neat and orderly and exciting as golf balls, and the pad thai a mess of flavors so weak that the most overpowering taste is the chemical back-bite of Styrofoam from the takeout box.
Which, I have to confess, is far, far better than the taste of Yummy Yummy's vegetarian tom kha. But still, when I tried the chicken tom kha at Tommy's, I felt nothing. It was a creamy blank, a coconut goose egg with just a hint of zilch. Next week, I won't remember having eaten it. Next month, I won't remember having gone at all. And I don't go to restaurants for forgettable food.
Look, most days you just want to fill your belly, and I get that. You eat peanut butter and jelly. You eat ramen soup in a cup. You blow through the drive-thru or throw something in the microwave, and don't give eating too much thought. But once in a while, don't you want to be challenged? Don't you want to risk a little for the chance of a big reward? There's something to be said for the adventurous spirit that won't ever be content with one forgettable meal after another after another. Sure, I felt queasy after Yummy Yummy's tom kha, but you know what? I remember that place. I remember everything about it -- where I was sitting, what was on the TV, what was on the walls I stared at while silently praying not to throw up. Before running afoul of that soup, I'd had a half-dozen really great dishes there -- batter-dipped and deep-fried spinach leaves that I've never seen anywhere else, and green curry that tasted like it'd been made by hands that truly understood what green curry was all about. And to experience any one of those half-dozen dishes again for the first time, I would gladly build myself a time machine, fall backward a week and go through it all over, knowing full well what kind of hell was waiting for me at the end.
Was it worth a little temporary discomfort to find something truly extraordinary? Is the destination, with all its hardships, worth the voyage? You bet your boots, cowboy. Let the milksops have their clean and well-lit places. Me, I'll be around the corner, down the alley, across the street eating the roasted field mice, the thumb soup, the fried leaves and curry. And though the happy cowards may have to step over me as I lie puking in the gutter, I wouldn't have it any other way.