Cafe Society

Close Calls

When I was a growing up in a very white-bread section of Pittsburgh, our choices for an ethnic dining experience consisted of a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant that nobody went to because, well, who knew what they were doing in that kitchen, and Isley's, which poured a red sauce that tasted like Ragú over its spaghetti and meatballs. But Isley's had also invented both Klondike bars and chipped ham -- a delicacy found nowhere else in the Steel City that involves very low-grade deli ham "chipped" into razor-thin bits. (It goes great with pickle relish on Wonder Bread.)

To satisfy a craving for anything more exotic, you had to drive over to the Southside, where a plate of kielbasa and sauerkraut could be had for two bucks; or to Squirrel Hill for knishes and corned beef; or to Oakland, home of both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University, for gyros and Middle Eastern fare. "Asian" food was called "Oriental" back then, and China was its sole contributor. There were no Thai or Malaysian eateries, and if someone had walked up to a steelworker with a piece of raw salmon on a cute little bed of sticky rice, let's just say that that person would have ended up swimming with the fishes in one of three rivers.

Kids growing up today in Denver's Washington Park neighborhood have it so much better. For decades, Central 1 (now Pete's Central 1) has been serving up good Greek grub on East Alameda Avenue; a few years ago, Swing Thai moved into an old gas station down the street. And until recently, Papa's Pizza made great 'za and other Italian dishes in a space just across the street from Central 1.

Last year, though, Papa's was replaced by Thai Basil Asian Fusion. While the restaurant's convoluted name makes it sound as though something more might be going on, Thai food is the primary focus at this funky little eatery, which also offers a smattering of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. Why the owners added the word "fusion" I'll never know, because they'd already had enough name problems. (Their original moniker, Sweet Basil, turned out to belong to a popular Vail restaurant.) Just don't go there expecting world cuisine with Asian influences, and you'll be fine.

Thai Basil is a cozy, welcoming neighborhood joint, with bright, lime-colored walls, groovy track lighting, and real and fake plants that give the place a vaguely tropical feel. While the takeout bustle can overwhelm the staff at peak hours, the service is usually attentive and quick. And the solid Asian fare -- always fresh and well-cooked -- boasts some fun touches, including rice molded in the shape of a fish and shaved, deep-fried garlic atop noodle dishes.

While the tab for the seafood entrees can creep into the low teens, most meals are priced for families and frequent dining. We became fast fans of the crab-cheese wontons -- six wrappers cradling fat blobs of cream cheese with enough crab and green onion that the flavor wasn't all about the cream cheese. The Asian-style hot wings were another favorite, their crispy skins coated in a sugar-sweetened Sriracha sauce. An order of satay chicken brought still more sweetness: The tender, juicy strips of skewered bird had been grilled until crispy-edged and sided with a sugary, peanut-butter-thick dipping sauce that tasted more Americanized than most -- not necessarily a bad thing. Authentic all the way were the spring rolls and Vietnamese egg rolls, which came with a spicy chile-lime sauce that was much more lively than the typical nuoc cham. The egg rolls were filled with a quality mix of pork bits, carrot, onion and jicama shreds and tree mushrooms; the spring rolls boasted the right balance of shrimp, lettuce, bean sprouts, mint and vermicelli, all snugged into a thinner-than-usual rice wrapper (which made the rolls less chewy). Rather than try to choose between all the appetizers, the pu-pu-style platter may be the way to go: It includes two of everything we sampled but the spring rolls.

Narrowing down your choices doesn't get any easier after the starters. Chicken-coconut soup, Thai Basil's take on tom kha gai, was a worthy digression; the coconut-milk base was sweet and light on the curry, although we could have done with a little less lemongrass, which adds a deep lemony flavor but isn't fun to eat. We also wolfed down a healthy Vietnamese salad, all cabbage and chicken in the same chile-lime sauce that accompanied the egg rolls. Big enough to split were the entree pad Thai and pad se lew -- fat rice noodles tossed with barely cooked broccoli and a very sweet soy sauce. Also sweet were the Chinese-inspired sesame scallops, crispy on the outside and soft within, covered with a spicy sauce that packed quite a kick (the kitchen will tone it down if you ask). Shining through a bowl of Vietnamese rice noodles was the natural sweetness of shrimp that were lightly floured, seasoned and fried until covered with a thin crust. Bean sprouts, chopped lettuce, mint, peanuts and shards of roasty-toasty garlic gave the dish texture and still more titillating tastes. The overall effect was healthy and hip.

Back in the day, I would have moved mountains to live near a Thai Basil.

Sushi will probably never be as big in western Pennsylvania as it is in Denver, but that's okay -- it means more fish for us. And a good place to catch some is right next door to Thai Basil, at Fontana Sushi. The first time I drove by the place, I thought it looked like the Japanese equivalent of Mr. Steak: cheap and scary. But after a few meals there, I give Fontana prime-grade status.

Although the sushi isn't low-end in terms of quality, it's a real bargain during the buck-a-piece "happy hour," which runs from 6 to 10 p.m. weekdays and 7 p.m. to midnight on weekends. We sampled as much as we could, always sniffing and poking, and found nothing but top-notch seafood, from salmon to mackerel, octopus to eel, tuna to yellowtail. The sushi chefs can be a little slow -- especially when more than three tables are occupied -- and the rest of the servers excruciatingly so. (Our water glasses were refilled only after we flagged someone down; on several occasions I had to remind our waiter to bring dishes we'd ordered, and sometimes the waitstaff simply disappeared for fifteen minutes at a time.) But Fontana's setting is comfortable, as befits a true neighborhood joint, without all the ultra-chic, heavy-metal accents that so many sushi spots sport these days. And the happy-hour scene is so casual that employees' kids can often be found behind the bar, begging for a tamago here, a salmon roe there.

Good choices, both. The thinly sliced tamago was light on the sweetness and very, very fresh. The salmon roe wasn't flawless -- the nori wrapped around the rice beneath the eggs was crooked and looked like a link in one of those chains that kindergartners loop together to decorate Christmas trees -- but for a buck, I'll take my sushi crooked.

The rolls and handrolls weren't totally tidy, either, even though their prices were more standard, but they were totally tasty. While the dragon roll looked like something out of Lord of the Rings, its combination of eel, cucumber, avocado, salmon roe and enoki worked, with the avocado adding a nice richness to the other bold flavors. And the Manhattan roll was superb, with more smooth avocado fitting right in with the smooth tuna, and both playing off a chewy center of spicy octopus.

The cooked dishes were just as delicious as the raw goods. This was no hole-in-the-wall Asian, all cabbage and brown sauces, but worthy Japanese fare. Fontana's regular menu includes edamame that arrived hot and well-coated with salt (which made the little soybean pods an even more enticing snack), as well as an excellent miso soup with tiny silken tofu cubes and plenty of wakame flakes afloat. An order of beef teriyaki cloaked the strips of beef with sauce blessedly free of cloying sugar; a bowl of yaki udon arrived piping hot, teeming with small bits of soft chicken and large pieces of shiitake mushroom. The real surprise, though, was Fontana's shrimp tempura, an exemplary version that wrapped tender, barely cooked shrimp in a thick crust of batter so light, each piece was like an air sculpture.

Growing up does have its advantages -- much better ethnic food, for example. If either of these eateries wants to move into my neighborhood, I'll roll out the welcome mat.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner