Customers pack nearly every table and most of the bar at Farmhouse Thai Eatery in Lakewood, even though it's not even noon on a weekday. "Why is it always so busy here?" asks one customer to his dining companion, who wonders aloud if the restaurant serves pho.
While the ins and outs of Thai cuisine may seem complicated for some folks (here's a tip: Head to a Vietnamese restaurant for pho, sir), the answer to the first diner's question is clear: Farmhouse Thai has quickly earned a reputation for the fresh and vibrant flavors, colors and textures of its food — hallmarks of great Thai cooking.
A Help Wanted sign on the door is a tip-off that the new strip-mall eatery is gaining fans. Inside, a lone server patrols the dining room, deftly seating guests, taking orders, shuttling food, ringing in tickets and even stopping to offer tableside service for a complicated salad that's best when mixed in the right ratios. The place is far too busy for one server to handle, and yet she keeps her cool — and keeps tables clean for still more incoming customers.
She's Toon Imjart, daughter of chef/owner May Uree. Farmhouse Thai is a family operation; Imjart's husband and sister also help run things. They're from California, so market-fresh ingredients and seasonal menus are part of their DNA, while Uree's husband is originally from northern Thailand, so influences from there, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) just across the border spill onto the menu.
Fried rice, pad Thai, chicken satay and the typical traffic-light array of curries (red, yellow and green) keep most of the lunch crowd happy, but there's far more coming out of the kitchen than the standard American-Thai canon. The three curries brighten with housemade pastes, and a sense of humor accompanies many dishes. Fried squid rings are labeled "Carla & Marie," while the papaya pok pok salad is simultaneously a reference to the sound of the mortar and pestle used to create the dish and a nod to the Portland restaurant that made traditional Thai cooking more accessible (if a little too hip) for Americans. The pok pok lao, a variation on the salad, comes with raw marinated blue crab as an option, something familiar and comforting to Thai diners but a little more adventurous for Western palates.
Back to that complicated salad mixed tableside: It's the Burma Tea Party under the "Must Try" section of the menu, and it arrives beautifully plated with little mounds of peanuts, sesame seeds, toasted garlic, crunchy soy nuts and fermented tea leaves alongside a portion of chopped lettuce and shredded carrots. If you're lucky, your server (likely Imjart) will dive in with fork and spoon, first mixing the tea leaves with the crunchy toppings, then tossing everything together with the lettuce so that each bite contains just the right amount of crunch, snap and deep garlicky essence. A staple in Burma, the dish as it's served here is addictive and satisfying far beyond its deceptive simplicity.
If the sound of a fresh and unique salad is appealing, don't miss the Hello Summer salad, with watermelon, coconut jelly and kaffir and mint leaves, dressed in sesame oil and balsamic vinaigrette. Uree says that her family is already working on adding more capacity in the kitchen so they'll be able to offer more seasonal dishes and change things up every three months or so.
A few northern Thai specialties seldom seen in Denver are other highlights. Kow Soi, a coconut curry with bone-in chicken and two kinds of noodles (chewy egg noodles and crunchy fried noodles), is famous in Chiang Mai; at Farmhouse Thai, you'll feel like you have a seat at a Chiang Mai market stall. Make sure to squeeze the accompanying lime wedge over your curry, as it cuts through the richness of the coconut milk. And a side of toasted chile oil is a perfect dip for tender bits of slow-cooked chicken.
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Rarer still in Denver is hang le curry, made with pork belly and shoulder in a tangy-sweet sauce of tamarind, palm sugar, turmeric, ginger and pickled garlic. Farmhouse Thai's version is heavy and bold, served in a portion so large it's best shared by two people.
The pho-curious diner, who eventually settles on pineapple fried rice, would have been pleasantly surprised by the restaurant's floating market noodle soup, sometimes called boat noodles, which bears similarities to its Vietnamese cousin. Pork broth makes this soup somewhat headier than standard pho, but Farmhouse Thai also offers a beef version.
Hidden behind a Chili's, Starbucks and Black Eyed Pea at First Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, Farmhouse Thai still manages to stand out for cuisine offering a much wider range of Thai flavors than commonly found in metro Denver.
Farmhouse Thai Eatery is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. (11:30 a.m. Sundays) to 9 p.m. at 98 Wadsworth Boulevard in Lakewood. A full bar with beer, wine and cocktails is also part of the program. Call 303-237-2475 for more details.