“What should I order?”
The text message came with photos of a menu and a list of such items as hongshao pork, mapo tofu, three-cup chicken and la zi ji — dishes common across China but rare in Denver, unless you know which spots have a Chinese menu.
“Where are you?” I quizzed.
“Chinese restaurant pretending to be Thai. Close to DU.”
You’re forgiven if you’ve driven past Jason’s Thai Asian Bistro & Boba, little suspecting what might be inside this spot that’s anchored the corner of a strip mall at the intersection of South University Boulevard and Iliff Avenue for eleven years. I certainly had, assuming that Jason’s was a garden-variety Thai restaurant, supplying college kids with sticky-sweet curries, mediocre pan-fried noodles and iced teas clogged with boba. And in fact, Jason’s has all of those things and more, suggesting a sort of pan-Asian identity crisis: a sushi bar, pho, teriyaki, all served under colorful neon lights while Mexican hip-hop blares from the kitchen.
But a closer look reveals signs that Chinese food is the culinary focus here: Han characters on the sign outside translate roughly to “prince’s palace,” and boards detailing specials list Chinese dishes in both English and Chinese. Chinese students gather around the tables for lunchtime feasts, conversing with the waitstaff in Mandarin, which is also the language in which a server answers the phone. And the menu, while certainly long on items from across the Asian canon, contains sections dedicated to regional Chinese cooking.
As it turns out, the owner of Jason’s Thai is from Shanghai and, my server explained, is particularly enamored of the spicy flavors of Sichuan. That explains why one section of the menu deals explicitly in Sichuan fare: There’s the mapo tofu plus twice-cooked pork, Sichuan-style fish, and even ma la tang, a sweat-inducing spicy soup in which you cook vegetables and meats hot pot-style. And the noodles section lists Sichuan-style beef noodle soup, a regional specialty built on murky broth enlivened with chiles.
If you’re a Sichuan spice enthusiast — if you crave the numbing sensation imparted by Sichuan peppercorns — you’ll find a lot to love at Jason’s. Order any of these dishes Sichuan-spicy, and while you won’t get your face blown off (my preferred level of heat, frankly, and the common spice threshold in the province), you will get a real lip-tingling buzz from the pepper. That’s certainly the case with the dry and spicy fish hot pot, served in a small wok set atop a Sterno flame; the vibration from the peppercorn-dusted crispy battered fish builds as you eat, tempered by a sweet-savory broth that’s rendered into a glaze over the heat. And the la zi ji, spicy chicken dusted with Sichuan peppercorns and littered with chiles, packs a real punch.
The rest of the Chinese menu at Jason’s traverses a range of regions and also offers Imperial (or pan-Chinese) staples. There’s Taiwanese three-cup chicken, made with rice wine and fragrant ginger; Beijing-originated zhajiang noodles topped with stewed beef and cucumber; and xiao long bao, a Shanghai specialty that should satisfy the most ardent lovers of dumpling soups. There are also such home-style favorites as scrambled egg with tomato and plenty of offal, including sour tripe and jalapeño pig ear. You’ll even find some banquet staples, including crispy duck served with steamed buns.
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Dishes are family-style, so supplement them with a vegetable side. Wok-blistered green beans are saucier than the dry-fried versions you may have had elsewhere, but are a good addition. And I was happy to see one of my favorites: hot and sour potatoes, grated into thin strands like hash browns and tossed with piquant red-pepper flake.
While student patrons seem to prefer to pair their meals with boba tea, I find that light beer is especially good with Sichuan sauce. Fortunately, Jason’s has a full bar.
I’ll be back at Jason’s soon, to continue working my way through the Chinese list that’s hiding in plain sight amid the curries, tempura and California rolls.
Jason’s Thai Asian Bistro & Boba, 2022 South University Boulevard, is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday, and closed Monday. For more information, call 303-777-8388 or go to the Jason's Thai Facebook page.