Cafe Society

Jaya Asian Grill is hot — in more ways than one

Chile cannot kill you. I have been assured of that. No matter how much your dumb, careless, looking-in-the-other-direction ass might've accidentally ingested, it can not do you any severe or lasting harm.

Oh, it can make you want to die — from embarrassment first, as you dance around the living room with your swollen tongue hanging out, eyes watering, nose running like a faucet; then, later, from the cramps and from feeling like you just drank a gallon of kerosene and swallowed a lit match. It can make you wonder whether or not a human being can actually piss fire and think how, when Mick was trying to inspire Rocky and told him that he was "gonna eat lightning and crap thunder," that maybe he, too, had just made a tragic error and eaten the equivalent of a nice, heaping tablespoon of Indonesian sambal, swallowed it without thinking, and was suffering the inevitable after-effects.

I, too, have eaten the lightning, Mick. I, too, feel like I have a tank full of napalm just waiting on a spark. And all because I was distracted for just an instant when I should've been paying closer attention to what I was putting in my mouth. Distracted by a commercial for Red Lobster, of all things. At a moment when I should've been focused on the fried chicken in front of me.

Actually, it wasn't the fried chicken that did it, but the sauce that came on the side. The fried chicken — the ayam goreng kalasan — was really quite lovely: half a chicken, bones and all, fried in its skin to a deep and nutty brown, hacked into conveniently bite-sized pieces by someone with what must've been a very large cleaver and something deeply personal against chickens. All by its lonesome, the chicken was just fine. A little bit dry, perhaps, but very tasty. I was eating it with my fingers from the takeout box that had been handed to me at Jaya Asian Grill just twenty minutes earlier — chewing around the bones while I sat on my couch watching sitcoms and getting greasy fingerprints all over the remote.

I'd found the plastic to-go cup of brick-red sauce tossed into the bottom of the brown paper bag along with the soy sauce packets and napkins. I doubted it was meant to go with the shrimp dumplings or even the curry ayam, so I made a judgment call and set it beside my box of fried chicken, my not-even-like-KFC-a-little spread of Southeast Asian snacks. For some reason, I'd thought it was tamarind sauce. I don't know why, exactly. Maybe because I knew that Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine use tamarind, and the color was right. Maybe I thought that some sweet, cool tamarind might go well with ayam goreng kalasan. Then I dipped an almost-spoon-shaped piece of breast into the plastic cup and, at the crucial instant, looked away — at the TV that was showing one of those slo-mo close-ups of a lobster tail being denuded of meat all in one smooth pull.

Hmm..., I thought. I wish I had some lobster right now.

That was the last coherent thought I had for about three hours. The last one that didn't have to do with fire and flames and death and perdition and Rocky and wondering if I could collect workers' comp should my tongue just shrivel up and fall out.

This was my third Jaya meal in three days. My third ever, although Jaya opened four years ago. I'd ordered it to go, simply because when I walked into the place late on a Monday, I'd seen only one other diner and decided I couldn't take a full ninety-minute dinner sitting alone with just the waitresses and my iPhone for company. Besides, I already knew what I wanted. Most of it I'd had before — the roti canai (which was what'd gotten me through the door in the first place, roti still being a rarity in these Mile High environs) and the shrimp dumplings (which were where my sudden addiction to Jaya had come from; they're my new favorite dumplings in the city), the Penang curry and little tastes of salted fish and greens and chiles. But I'd come for the ayam goreng kalasan, too, because I was curious what Indonesian fried chicken might taste like, for the Singaporean curry ayam simply because it was described as "a favorite," and for the nasi lemak (a traditional Indonesian comfort food made with chicken and peanuts and hard-boiled eggs served over rice sweetened with toasted coconut) because I knew the name sounded familiar but couldn't remember ever having seen it in Denver.

I already loved Jaya. First strangely and without any real cause, then fiercely and with a too-fast dedication (both of which are also apt descriptions of how I fall in love with humans). I'd loved it from the first minute I'd stepped down into its half-buried dining room tucked away in a dying strip-mall complex because, even from that first moment, I was met with smiles from the staff, curious glances from the primarily Southeast Asian clientele (who knew Denver had so many Indonesian and Malaysian immigrants?) and the clatter of a busy kitchen working away in the back.

I loved the place even though my first meal there was not altogether successful — splitting my passions between plates I adored and ones that I would never, ever order again. The shrimp dumplings — pan-fried and fat, hand-crimped, with thick skins and a filling of shrimp paste and green onions and what I swear are crayfish tails even though the menu says they are just shrimp — were amazing. Alone, they were delicious. Dipped in the ginger-and-chile-spiked soy sauce, they were even better. And the roti canai, though not of the tissue-thin variety I prefer, though not served with the thick sweet-hot curry I like with bits of potato and odd scraps of meat, but instead with a curry sauce that was thin and brothy and slicked with chile oil, was also satisfying. It was thicker here, almost like an Indian paratha, but with the same lacy edges of fried butter, the same vague sweetness.

Unfortunately, the beef rendang was virtually inedible, even if the cubed beef was well prepared; it was too greasy, too unbalanced, tasting of charred wood and burnt chiles more than anything else. And I couldn't enjoy the shrimp bee-hoon because the thin, Singaporean rice noodles had been fried with bean sprouts and had taken on the earthy smell and dirt flavor of the sprouts (one of the few edible things on this earth that I just plain can't stand) — but this was more my issue than something the kitchen had done wrong.

Still, experience told me that this was a menu that simply needed a careful approach, a skill and precision in ordering that my usual "I'll have two of everything and a couple of beers to wash it down" style of diner/waitress interaction would not benefit. Particularly since the menu at Jaya is broad, covering a wide swath of Southeast Asian traditions and canons. There are fragments of Thai cuisine tucked in among the Indonesian and Malaysian specialties, tastes of Singapore and China like hidden temples in the jungle, then some dull Amerasian plates offered like sops to the boring neighbors.

So I returned with my first meal less than 24 hours settled and had more shrimp dumplings, more roti canai, gailan with salted fish, Penang curry (which was excellent — creamy and subtle and not too sweet, though I missed the potatoes of the strip-mall Thai variety) and a plate of Hainanese chicken rice that was just beautiful: another half-chicken, boiled this time and cut off the bone, served with sweet coconut rice and two delicious sauces (one cool and green and bright with onion and garlic, the other orange and sweetly spicy). My love was stabilizing, finding its footing. And when the waitress suggested to me that I eat a bit of the roti with table sugar because that was the way she liked it, the way her child had always eaten it, and that, perhaps, I should just pinch up more of the sauce with my chicken than drag it through the bowl like some kind of savage, I thrilled to the place even more.

The next night I was back at the counter, asking for ayam goreng kalasan. Somewhere down the road was my couch, my TV, that Red Lobster commercial — and my date with complete digestive meltdown.

Hmm..., I thought. I wish I had some lobster right now.

And then, BOOM. Like biting into a hand grenade. Like eating fire. It was hours before I recovered, and the next morning I still had a headache — a vice clamped to the back of my neck, the ultimate chile-head hangover. But while I was regretful, while I vowed that I would be more attentive in the future to what I was putting in my mouth and swore a terrible vengeance on Red Lobster, what really occupied me from the moment I realized that my mouth, my tongue and my belly had all recovered reasonably well?

When I would be able to get back to Jaya for another order of those shrimp dumplings.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan