Standing in front of Thai Lotus after our first meal there, Laura and I look at the place, amazed. Stuffed and carrying takeout, we need something to aid our digestion.
"In Florida," Laura says, "my grandmother used to take a walk every time she went out for Chinese food. Not very far. Usually just to the end of the strip mall and back."
And so we do the same, walking in the sun, passing by the windows of Chianti, which once was Venice, the first restaurant I reviewed when I came to Denver six years ago. We loop around behind the strip mall, into the back parking lot, and keep walking. There are people sitting behind one of the storefronts, the door braced open, watching the Broncos game on a portable TV, and they nod as we pass. We go all the way around, and I can still taste the Thai sweet-hot sauce on my lips when I lick them. I can still smell the grease of curry puffs on my fingers.
I'd never been to Thai Lotus before, never even heard of it, and that amazes me. Of course, there are plenty of restaurants in this city, even in this area I so frequently visit, that exist quietly, below the sweep of my radar; restaurants that don't do anything, good or bad, that elevates them above the background radiation of the business; restaurants that simply serve without ever calling attention to themselves. I've spent six years studying, searching, prospecting for the good, the bad and the ugly amid the wash of thousands of food-service operations, and I know I've barely scratched the surface. I know that some kind of mythic total awareness will be forever beyond me. But still, I'm amazed that a place as good as Thai Lotus has escaped my notice.
It makes me wonder what else I have missed, overlooked, passed by without a second glance. I've been to Chianti, and Venice before that — what? Ten times, maybe? A dozen? Which means that ten or a dozen times before, I'd been within spitting distance of Thai Lotus — and not even seen it. I've stood on this sidewalk on nights when, starving, I've had to wait 45 minutes for a table, and it never occurred to me to just say, "Screw it," take twenty steps and eat Thai food instead of Italian. When we'd finally stepped into Thai Lotus for our first meal there — propelled by a chance hit on the Internet, Laura's lingering cold and a need for something spicy, hot and singeing — I actually had a flash of memory: of standing in front of Venice, smoking a cigarette, waiting and watching a couple walk by with bags of takeout, the smell of curry and basil wafting off them like an alien perfume. I remembered thinking how good that had smelled, but then being called back to the Italian restaurant, my table finally ready.
Thai Lotus had been right there — within the scope of my regular wanderings — and I'd never gone in.
Thai Lotus has been around for six and a half years — as long as I have. The crew is Thai, the food obviously Thai, unkinked for the American palate, presented the way that the best immigrant cuisines are — as best recalled from home. The original executive chef was Charoon Panichakul, ex of the Continental Airlines food-service operation (where he was executive chef) and the tasting kitchens of Boston Market — a weird route to have traveled, for sure. His sous was Edie Unium, who stood post as head cook at J's Noodles for fifteen years before coming to Thai Lotus. They had the place for five years, then sold it. Same name, same concept, same room, but now with Chavalit Wattanasarith and his brother standing in the spaces vacated by Charoon and Edie — the brothers cooking and serving, seating, balancing the books, everything. For eighteen months, they've done it all, sometimes with help, sometimes without. It's their house now. A family thing.
And it shows. I haven't liked the lad na I've ordered at other Thai restaurants in town — the long, flat and handmade noodles tending to go clumpy and pasty, like Italian tagliatelle too long in the water. But then I tried the Wattanasarith bothers' lad na at Thai Lotus and loved it — the noodles pan-fried until they blister and crisp at the edges and on the flat places where they touch the hot metal, then made into a nest and souped with a thin Thai gravy powerfully redolent of garlic. There was bok choy, cooked until soft and silky, and shrimp curled into little pink commas of flesh. And the herbed chicken — a house specialty, the only thing listed in the "Rotisserie" section of the Thai Lotus menu, offered as a half or whole — was astonishing, juicy and tender, roughly hacked into bone-spurred chunks, the golden-brown and fatty skin perfectly roasted and still attached. From the back, I'd heard the thunking of the cleaver as the chicken was deconstructed for me. And when it arrived, it was wreathed in steam like something out of a commercial, served with rice and a bowl of thick sauce, red like a liquid ruby flecked with flaws of dried hot pepper. The chicken was too difficult to eat with chopsticks, so I went in with my fingers, sucking roasted meat off the bone that tasted like the best fried chicken, chewing skin that was unmistakably Asian: soft, not crisp, almost sweet and slicked with fat.