In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
What is it about restaurant menus hawking the cuisines of multiple countries that makes us cringe a little and step on the gas pedal so that we cruise on past? We're all food adventurers here, right? When I was a kid, I loved the idea of topping off my plate of cheesy enchiladas with a sticky wedge of baklava or sitting wide-eyed before a towering mound of those whacky Irish nachos. But as adults, we mostly turn up our noses in scorn; surely no one chef and staff can turn out quality plates of Greek, Mexican and Italian from one kitchen. And just forget any notions of authenticity when a menu features Asian cuisine from more than one country. But this is exactly the mission of Masa Asian Kitchen: filling bellies with a variety of specialties from the vast quadrant of the globe that encompasses Japan, China, Vietnam, and Thailand.
I almost missed the restaurant entirely, since only a single red sign jutting out into the Colorado sky advertises its presence -= a sign idwarfed, along with the restaurant itself, by a massive billboard enshadowing the entire intersection of 20th and Federal Boulevard. I was running errands along this middle stretch of Federal, keeping an eye out for some taco shack or diner I might have missed, when I remembered, just in time, that Masa was there. This was to be a solo mission, as furtive as the Christmas shopping itself (under the guise of picking up dog food and a few random bits of hardware from that Home Depot on Colfax). Surely a bad idea, but one born of expedience and necessity, because I had no clue as to how I would squeeze in a decent sampling of food without at least moderate discomfort and self-loathing.
Luckily Masa does a brisk takeout and delivery business, so staffers know how to package food to-go. And the menu offers enough variety in portion sizes, appetizers and beverages that I was able to span the Pacific Rim with little effort. Ensconced in my corner booth with a good view of the pumpkin-hued dining room and its small TV broadcasting a football game, I ordered a Vietnamese coffee to sip while I waited for the rest of my food. I'd picked the cuttlefish balls from the appetizer menu simply because it's a dish I've never tried, but was delighted when they came out dressed like Japanese takoyaki, with just a thin fried coating, a dusting of bonito flakes, and a squiggle of a sweetish black sauce. The cuttlefish was diced and packed tight, making each bite a little bouncy and resilient, but not tough or chewy.
My bowl of Thai green curry with thin and tender beef arrived soon after. The muted flavors of the creamy sauce whispered hints of ginger, garlic and lemongrass, but at least the mix was threaded through with plenty of fresh basil leaves to add an herbal sweetness. Two unassuming gyoza dumplings -- my selection to go with the lunch special -- served merely as vehicles to convey Sriracha sauce to my chile-starved tongue.
As an excuse to try one more dish without looking like a complete glutton (or an obvious food blogger), I asked for an order of vegetarian ma po tofu to go. Intense wafts of garlic pummeled my senses all the way home, nearly making me pull over to fight back with a plastic spoon and my quickly returning appetite. The bag and its contents made it home intact and I shared the rich, spicy chunks of tofu with my wife, who thought the sauce was lacking in salt. It definitely seemed a little under-seasoned despite what appeared to be flecks of real Sichuan peppercorns (judging by the jangly feeling they left on my tongue), a generous slick of chile oil, and a deep brick red color almost like mole poblano. It was tasty but just seemed to have a blind spot in the flavor profile. My guess is that the sauce was a little heavy on the MSG in an attempt to boost the umami that the typical ground or shredded beef would have added. I don't mind a little MSG to boost existing flavors in a dish, but it can be odd when used to replace savoriness.
There's no shortage of restaurants that try to please a wide range of palates. Whether a Mediterranean restaurant featuring dishes from Greece, Italy, North Africa and the Middle East or an all-American diner attempting an inspired gumbo, a simple but elegant lobster roll, and a tear-inducing New Mexico green chile burger, many Western restaurants surely try with bravado, if not always success. So why not a mixed Asian menu? A history of failed experiments may point in a general direction, but there's no objective reason why a chef can't master -- or at least become competent with -- the sauces and ingredients of multiple countries, whether Asian or European. It's unlikely that you'll get the best of any one style, but as long as the expectation isn't chef-driven brilliance or the soulful traditionalism of grandma's recipes, an eatery like Masa can at least be a fun and inexpensive guided tour of what would otherwise be a daunting deep dive into many different restaurants. And on a lazy day with no aspirations of being wowed, maybe competence isn't such a bad thing.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.