Cafe Society

Eat Their Words: Jai Ho's food lives up to its colorful menu

The Jai Ho menu features some of the most useless — and hilarious — dish descriptions I've ever seen.

"One of our signature dishes — many different stories for how the name came about, but who cares, we just eat it!!" sums up Chicken 65. JaiHo Spl Karaikudi Mutton is explained with this: "Chettinadu is jealous now, so from chettinadu with love..." And my favorite, which describes Jil Jil Jigar Thanda: "From the Land of Tamil with a Hindi name!! go figure.. yummy but u got to guess the ingredients."

Those descriptions are printed in lilting script on expensive paper, and on my first visit to Jai Ho, I spent a long time squinting at that menu in the dimly lit dining room, examining similarly amusing descriptions of dozens of dishes, trying to come up with a meal that would make sense. There were few hints: Besides a couple of tikka masalas, Jai Ho doesn't serve the Anglicized versions of northern Indian staples that overload most Indian menus in town. And the staff, though friendly and fervently ready to serve, was as quirky, amusing and vague as the menu. Fifteen minutes and one Indian beer later, I finally made my order — fairly certain that I could have just thrown darts at the menu and done as well.

View Jai Ho's menu

After dining at Jai Ho several times, I'm certain that the dart method would work — because I've never had a bad dish here.

Before they opened Jai Ho in the spring of 2010, Sathya and Sujatha Narayan, an architect and a realtor, respectively, had never owned a restaurant. But when they moved to the Denver area eight years ago from Vancouver, they noticed a gap in the Indian offerings. Since they'd always dreamed of owning their own place, when this spot in an Aurora strip mall became available, they picked up the lease and got to work, outfitting the large space with ornate wood partitions that divide the dining room into two booth-lined sections and a front-and-center lounge, where Bollywood plays on the mounted flat-screens and drinkers sit on padded ottomans around low tables. The wispy curtains, colored candles, twangy Indian music and spice-riddled air combine to create a heady atmosphere.

More photos: Menu Tour: Jai Ho in Aurora

And then there's the mind-addling menu, which is rooted in the southern portion of the continent, with specialties from Kerala, Hyderabad and Tamil Nadu (specifically, Chettinad) that highlight such ingredients as coconut, pickled gongura (a native sorrel leaf) and mango, all stewed and combined with lentils, chicken, mutton or fish and packed with enough heat to make you break into a sweat. Those dishes are supplemented with a handful of northern Indian preparations — paneers, samosas and tandoori chicken — as well as a few Indo-Chinese offerings. One of those, the chili gobi, is now one of my favorite foods. I'd chosen it on my first visit because "cauliflower in Indo Chinese style" sounded relatively straightforward and seemed a harmless enough way to start my meal. The dish arrived just minutes after I'd finally finished ordering — and it was far from harmless. A pile of cauliflower florets, cooked tender and then deep-fried until crisp, had been mixed with sautéed bell peppers and onions, then tossed in a sticky, tangy, earthy sauce infused with ginger and garlic. Although there was no meat in sight, the delicious dish made me think of five-spice chicken wings, with a heat that built from a mere tingling to a fire that required more than beer to put out.

Relief came in the form of Mysore masala dosa: thin pancakes that had enough starch to stand up to the chiles, spread with a thin layer of spicy tomato paste and folded over potatoes infused with turmeric and mixed with more onions. In southern India, dosas are traditionally accompanied by a variety of accoutrements and dipping sauces; at Jai Ho, they come with sambar — a stew made with tamarind and lentil-like pigeon peas — as well as a sweet, refreshing coconut chutney and a minty green chile chutney. We used the last of the sauces on the hot naan that showed up right before our entrees, swiped with oil and dusted with minced green chiles (as if we needed more heat).

My friend had finally decided on the Godavari gongura chicken, a dish that originated in Andhra Pradesh and is named for the Godavari River. It was a good choice. The chicken had been braised until it fell into shreds in a brown curry-based sauce spiked with cardamom, ginger and cinnamon. The gongura added a cleansing tartness and played well off the overriding spice. I liked the chicken better than my own choice, the veg annamalai, described cryptically as "Chettinad style veggies with a punch, just like our superstar :-)." An assortment of vegetables had been stewed in a thick sauce redolent with cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa and a hint of chile, not unlike Mexican mole. It was interesting, both subtle and complex, but the nuances were lost on my heat-seared palate.

But I did not feel burned by my meal at Jai Ho, which, just as the Narayans had predicted, definitely fills a gap in Denver's dining scene.

When I returned with friends on a Saturday night, I didn't fret about understanding the menu and just started ordering: chili gobi again and the Rocket ghee roast — "It's a plane, It's a rocket. No it's a Dosa" — that was curled into a cone shape, like the nose of a rocket, but otherwise seemed the same as any plain, flat dosa. We followed those up with dahi vada, which was billed with the intriguing "Flavorful lentil donut's day at the spa — spiced yogurt bath." That turned out to to be the most accurate description I've found at Jai Ho: The dense, cake-doughnut-like balls of dough studded with whole lentils came in a chilled yogurt soup that had chile and mint floating on top. It was both stimulating and refreshing, much like a stint at a spa.

More photos: Menu Tour: Jai Ho in Aurora

I'd liked the chicken gongura so much that I went with the mutton version, which was heartier and gamier but just as good. We'd also gone with the kuppam meen kuzhambu, sold by the surprisingly straightforward recommendation of our server as well as this tagline: "From the fishing hamlets of Tamil Nadu, who else make the best fish curry.. Duh!!" Duh, indeed: I could detect coriander, cumin, tomato and a flash of tamarind juice in the curry base, which swam with chunks of firm white fish. We chased every drop of that intense Chettinad concoction, spooning it over basmati rice and garlic naan until the little pot it had come in looked clean.

Then we finished our beers, paid the check and surrendered our table, which was in high demand as the dining room filled with Indian families and the music's volume doubled.

I'll be back at Jai Ho soon, so I can continue to eat my way through all of its offerings. And this time, I'll bring my darts.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk