MOUTHING OFF

The popularity of all types of Asian food has prompted some restaurants to offer more than one country's cooking. Several of these "JVC" (Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese) combo spots have opened here, particularly in the suburbs. One of the best I've found is Oriental Star, at 12203 East Iliff in Aurora.

Oriental Star shines in its commitment to healthy cooking practices, inherent to most Asian cuisine. But it goes the extra mile by promising MSG-free food as well as fare that is also 99 percent oil-free and natural, made with mostly organic ingredients. Much of the star power behind the tiny, eight-year-old eatery comes from part-owner and manager Janice Lin, a former registered nurse from Taiwan who doles out advice--she was describing beneficial acupuncture treatments to an elderly couple during one of my stops--as deftly as she creates nutritious fare. She even came up with the Oriental Star's popular macrobiotic Tuesday nights, during which dishes made from grains and vegetables compete with the regular menu. And it's a tough fight, because the meals here are terrific.

Which dishes originated in which country isn't always clear; for example, the lemongrass delight with shrimp ($7.95) had a Thai feel to it but wasn't a classic preparation. That didn't matter, though, because the vegetables were bright and fresh, barely cooked and tossed in a slightly citrusy sauce filled with pieces of the fragrant herb. The stunning creamy curry with vegetables ($6.25) crossed Thai with Vietnamese; studded with pineapple and sweetened with a touch of coconut milk, the dish had a mild curry bite and a richness that tasted all the better because it was so low in fat. The meat in the Japanese donburi ($6.95), a rice bowl with beef, was tender, juicy and also almost fat-free.

All of the entrees can be had with brown rice for 50 cents extra, and most of them come with a choice of meats, seitan or tofu, as well as a choice of soups. But Oriental Star has some trouble in the soup department, perhaps because little or no fat means a big drop in flavor. Or maybe it's that soups like egg drop usually rely so heavily on thickened chicken stocks and salt that they taste incredibly bland without them.

Oriental Star's Chinese sesame chicken ($7.95) certainly didn't suffer from a shortage of flavor. Spicy-sweet but not sticky-sweet, the slightly chewy batter was dotted with only a few sesame seeds (hey, they're high in oil) but contained plenty of tasty chicken. The egg rolls ($2 for two) were easy on the arteries, too, and came with a pungent nuoc mam that was heavy on the garlic. If I have to eat right, Oriental Star offers a painless way to do it.

Hiep no hurray: It looks like Denver Post food writer and former Westword restaurant critic John Kessler has replaced John Ealy in reviewing eateries for the Post. It also looks like the Post had to reduce the type in a recent review of Thai Hiep to half the size of normal newspaper type in order to get the thing to fit. I have to agree with the content, though, since my stop by Thai Hiep's second location, at 2690 East County Line in Highlands Ranch, reaped few rewards. Even the goi cuon ($2.80), the one item that Kessler mentioned liking, were lousy. I had thought the soft spring rolls would be an easy eat in the car on the way home, but they were so chewy and hard that if anyone had hit me, they would have sustained serious damage to their car.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner