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No Stone Unturned

Like the stones in a tennis bracelet, little ethnic eateries stud strip malls throughout suburbia. Some are genuine treasures, some are fakes--but most are flawed. Innocuously named--New Jade Garden Dragon, Happy Saigon Palace Bowlarama--and sporting hand-lettered signs proclaiming cheap lunch buffets, "No MSG" and authentic food, these spots usually change...
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Like the stones in a tennis bracelet, little ethnic eateries stud strip malls throughout suburbia. Some are genuine treasures, some are fakes--but most are flawed. Innocuously named--New Jade Garden Dragon, Happy Saigon Palace Bowlarama--and sporting hand-lettered signs proclaiming cheap lunch buffets, "No MSG" and authentic food, these spots usually change hands often, as neighbors tire of the lousy food and owners give up on the American dream. But there are always new tenants who confidently set up shop, convinced their cuisine is just what the area needs.

Very occasionally, they're right. But you have to sort through a lot of dull, dingy rhinestones before you encounter the true gems.

Ichiban Japanese Restaurant (pronounced eetchy-ban, not icky-ban) is a real find. For almost a year now, the restaurant has occupied a weird spot at the intersection of Peoria and Parker roads in Aurora that once housed Apples Corner Brunchery. The building is near the road--behind it sits another full strip mall presided over by a King Soopers--and is oddly polygonal; it looks like a drunk divided a pie into several pieces. While the Brunchery didn't use the space well, leaving part of the filthy kitchen exposed and jamming tables into odd corners, Ichiban owner Jung Sik Lee has done an incredible job of transforming the place. Complete with a sushi bar (Lee also serves as the sushi chef) and a ceiling full of trawling nets strewn with starfish and other sea-inspired items, the dining room features comfortable black velvet chairs, aquariums and Japanese sketches.

The menu is rather small, but it gets the job done. We stopped by twice for lunch, when you can order both dinner and lunch dishes, and each time started with a platter of sushi and sashimi, all well-priced and well-sliced. The raw fish came two to an order, and most of it--including tuna ($3.50), yellowtail ($3.50), salmon ($3.25) and mackerel ($3)--arrived on rice that had been smartly spiced with varying degrees of wasabe, so that each offering had exactly the spark it needed. The rolls, too, were properly seasoned; Ichiban constructed a fine sweet-and-salty salmon-skin roll ($3.50 for six pieces) and an excellent caterpillar roll ($7.50 for six pieces) that cooled off the spicy barbecued eel with chunks of avocado.

An order of tempura mori ($6.50) was disappointing, though. While the vegetables and shrimp inside the batter were soft and flavorful, the coating was oily and lacked crunch. But two teriyaki dishes--one featuring thin slices of beef ($7.95), the other grilled Pacific salmon ($6.95)--were flawless, delicious through and through. The beef was sirloin, tender to the teeth and coated with a not-too-sweet teriyaki sauce that gave a sugar chew to the edges of each slice; the salmon was soaked through with the same wonderful sauce. Rice and a smattering of steamed carrots and broccoli rounded out the plates.

Ichiban also offers a variety of noodle soups, including odeng udon ($7.95). The typically huge bowl held a tasty fish-based broth teeming with pink-edged fish cakes, plenty of wheat-flour noodles and scallions; shichimi (the seven-spice all-purpose Japanese condiment) added extra, but unnecessary, flavor. The soft-shell crab (market price, which at one lunch was $7.50 for a large specimen) was abundantly tasty, too, with a mildly peppery, medium-thick batter and nice accompaniments of a fishy soy sauce and a small plate of pickled daikon slices so soft and sweet, I could have eaten a hundred of them.

With food like that before you, you'll never want to leave Ichiban's cushy black chairs.

Thai Spice Cafe is another gem. This small eatery sits in a space that most recently housed a takeout-chicken shop and, before that, a Russian spot I was ready to rave about until it closed the week before the review was to run. Thai Spice, which has been in business for two years, seems to have a better grip on the neighborhood--close to the Aurora border, it gets a lot of the traffic heading into Denver along Parker Road. Owner Sumari Le, a former resident of Thailand, has eliminated the takeout feel--the display case that once held side salads is now filled with bottles of Singha beer and cans of imported guava juice--and has given the room a bright cheeriness. But the people who chow down at Thai Spice aren't there for the atmosphere, they're there for the food.

And what food it is. The curries live up to the restaurant's name. The three we sampled--the green curry with beef ($7.50), the duck curry ($9.95) and the musaman tofu ($7.50)--used different ingredients, but all were rich and redolent with multilayered seasoning. For example, the green curry that coated slices of well-pounded flank steak, as well as green beans and red peppers, had a strong undercurrent of coriander balanced by lime rind. The fragments of meat in the duck curry were a mix of fatty, juicy skin and strong flesh, their sweetness set off by the salty shrimp paste that gives red curry some of its bite; pineapple added extra sweetness. And the musaman--a traditional concoction of coconut milk pumped up with fish sauce, chiles, coriander, caraway, ginger, lemongrass, shrimp paste, cardamom and cloves, with a little tamarind thrown in for good measure--contained bits of fried tofu that were soggy with sauce, along with a healthy helping of chopped peanuts.

Diners at Thai Spice are given a range of one to five (five being the hottest) for the spiciness of each entree, and our dishes did have noticeably different degrees of heat. The exception was the spicy fish ($10.50), offered in only one level of heat--and, despite the dish's name, not a spicy one at that. (The price also seemed a bit steep for one smallish fish.) The salted, striped bass had been coated in a sticky, onion-heavy barbecue that I found addictive, but that not everyone would enjoy. These salt-cured items are an acquired taste, since the salt tends to make fish taste even fishier.

The designated non-spicy dishes were more mainstream, but also delicious. The lad na ($6.25)--I think it really should be laab na--featured thick rice noodles cooked until their consistency almost matched that of the herb-filled gravy, whose beefy base echoed the tender beef in the dish and also complemented a bounty of broccoli. And while Thai Spice's pad thai ($6.25) was on the dry side, the combination of peanuts, eggs and chiles was well-balanced. The dipping sauce for the pork satay ($6.50) was peanut-savvy, too, with enough of the sauce provided to cloak all six skewers of mildly spicy, chewy pork.

Like Thai Spice's environment, the presentation of most dishes is austere. The six egg rolls ($4.50) arrived adorned by a few shreds of red cabbage and a piece of lettuce; the thom kha gai ($6.95) contained only the basic elements required to qualify for the dish's name: chicken, straw mushrooms, ginger, lemon grass, chiles and coconut.

But true gems don't need any embellishment. They shine just fine on their own.

Ichiban Japanese Restaurant, 3150 South Peoria Street, Aurora, 755-8900. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday.

Thai Spice Cafe, 1842 South Parker Road, 755-2500. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily.

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