When I was a kid, my dad would make beef stew nearly every weekend during the coldest months of the year. He'd crank up the pressure cooker until it was hissing and fill the house with the aroma of beef, bay leaves and black pepper. Big, soft cubes of potato and carrots were always included, so I would mash the potatoes with my fork to absorb the gravy.
Now when the mercury drops, I crave beef stew, and I sometimes make a batch at home, though it's never quite as good as Dad's. He always used just the right amount of flour to coat the beef before he browned it in hot oil (resulting in a thick gravy that clung to every bite), added a generous dose of garlic and finished it off with a sprinkle of this, a spoonful of that — things I never paid attention to while he cooked (even if I was the one fetching jars and bottles from the pantry for him).
A soul-satisfying bowl of stew is tough to find in Denver restaurants; Irish pubs can usually be counted on, though most of their offerings are bland and gluey compared to my childhood stew memories. These days I prefer to explore the city's Asian restaurants to find comfort in something new. Here are three dishes — from Japan, Malaysia and Thailand — that satisfy my need for winter warmth in thick, beefy stew form.
Kiki's Japanese Casual Dining
2440 South Colorado Boulevard
Unlike many other Japanese restaurants in town, Kiki's doesn't bother with austere, minimalist decor or the high end of Japan's culinary spectrum. In fact, it's more of a diner, with cluttered counters, comfortable booths and a lived-in feel. The sign above the door facing South Colorado Boulevard has faded from red to pink, indicating the long years that the restaurant has served its south Denver neighborhood. And in typical diner fashion, Kiki's dishes up comfort food, only from a Japanese point of view. In Japan, yoshoku refers to cooking influenced by Western culture. Hayashi rice is a prime example of yoshoku; it has no real counterpart in European or American cooking, but uses beef, tomato sauce and demiglace (or some form of beef stock) to create a stew-like dish that's warm and satisfying in the dead of winter. The beef is sliced thin to achieve a soft texture rather than slow-braised. And the deep reddish-brown sauce is mild yet full of umami, that often-misused Japanese word that describes the taste of foods rich in glutamates — including browned meat and ripe tomatoes. The hayashi at Kiki's is an excellent stand-in for beef stew, with a mound of rice in place of potatoes to help to soak up every last bit of sauce.
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Makan Malaysian Cafe
1859 South Pearl Street
Platt Park is home to many trendy restaurants, and it also is lucky to have Makan, which has served Malaysian cuisine from its inconspicuous spot since 2012. Malaysian cooking isn't exactly common in Denver, so the names of dishes don't instill fond childhood memories for many of us. But there are plenty of comforting foods, from pork and shrimp wontons to grilled flatbread sandwiches called murtabak to a beefy dish dubbed rendang daging. At Makan, the beef is braised in a coconut-based sauce with a bold blend of Southeast Asian spices. The dish balances sweet and tangy flavors, and there's a hint of chile heat, but not enough to scare away those with sensitive tastebuds. The beef is cut into large cubes, but it almost dissolves into the rice with which it's served, so you can use a spoon to break up the meat and scoop up bites. As for texture, it's right up there with the best beef stew, but the taste gives away its tropical origins.
Taste of Thailand
2120 South Broadway
There's much that's comforting on Taste of Thailand's homey menu: the seasonal "flu-shot soup" that's equal parts Grandma's chicken soup and Thai herb garden in a bowl; the crispy Thai egg rolls with their paper-thin shells; the pad Thai that steers well clear of sweet and sticky. But the restaurant's beef hot pot comes closest to humble beef stew, for its restorative powers if not for its similarity to the American dish. This isn't a typically soupy hot pot, like the kind found in Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants; instead, it's served in what resembles a deep wok, but without a thin broth. While the soft beef, the brown sauce and the tender vegetables that you'd expect in a good stew are all here, they're served over bean thread noodles, which soak up the soy-based sauce to form a starchy equivalent to potatoes or rice. This time of year, expect broccoli, onions, green peppers and tomato halves cooked into the mixture, with a handful of bean sprouts thrown on top just before it's served. This isn't a spicy dish, but a dab or two of the prik nam pla from the jar on your table will up the heat level if you desire. This beef hot pot doesn't need condiments, though; it's perfect as is for helping you shake off the chill on a cold winter night.