Cafe Society

Taste of Thailand has the cure for the flu -- and the cure for boring food

They were giving away irises at Taste of Thailand the other day — free to a good home, free to anyone who wanted to take away a little beauty.

I was too late to get one; the cardboard box that had held the plants was empty. But the restaurant was full — of customers, of employees, of other items for sale. More flowers, handmade paper, little trinkets and gift-shop baubles, croaking frogs made of wood, shiny shorts of the sort worn by Muay Thai fighters. The tiny lobby-slash-souvenir store was crowded with presents and papers, with takeout orders lined up along the low counter; crowded with security guards coming off shift and an ambulance crew about to go on, but wanting a good meal first; crowded with servers sorting through the knot of people waiting for seats in the small dining room next door, servers moving quickly, coming and going through the doorway between the lobby and the floor, the floor and the kitchen. The air was heavy with the smell of hot woks and oil and peanuts and garlic. It was prime time at Taste of Thailand — which meant it pretty much could have been any time.

Taste of Thailand has been crowded almost since the day it opened in 1994, when Rick and Noy Farrell decided to see what Denver thought about eating real Thai food, unaffected by latitude, by cultural drift. Noy had come to Denver by way of Boston and Boston by way of rural northern Thailand, where she was born and learned how to cook, to love food. She was an English teacher in Thailand, and it was teaching that brought her to the United States, to help Asian immigrants assimilate into a new, alien world. But it was food that kept her in touch with her roots and her people, holding the smells and flavors of her youth close even from thousands of miles away.

I'd read about Noy before I'd ever eaten here, about the kitchen she's been running for fifteen years, the garden she's been tending for nearly as long. I'd read Rick's blogs about how produce from that garden makes Taste of Thailand's cuisine unique (in Denver, at least) and about Noy's cooking classes, her lessons on how the Thai people deal with the multitude of herbs and fresh ingredients that form the backbone of the rustic end of the canon. I'd read about the flu shot soup that, over the years, has become a tradition at this restaurant. From October through March, it is one of the most popular dishes on the Taste of Thailand menu: a rich broth, packed with chicken dumplings and fresh vegetables often taken from the ground just hours, occasionally minutes, before. There are people in town who swear by this stuff, who attribute to it near-mystical powers. Doctors and nurses from Swedish Medical Center fire it down fast, often settling into the dining room still dressed in their scrubs, mixing with families and friends of those being seen to on the opposite side of Old Hampden Avenue.

And this year, because of the demand, because of the flu (swine or otherwise) being so much in the news, Rick and Noy decided to rush their soup onto the menu. There was no reason not to; the garden was certainly cooperating. So they taped a small blue sign to the front window announcing that flu shot soup was being served early this year.

The response has been huge. On a Saturday night, pressed close against the lobby wall, I looked out into the dining room and saw that half the tables were set with bowls of flu shot soup. On a Tuesday afternoon, stuck waiting because I'd unwisely shown up 45 minutes after opening as opposed to, say, 45 before, it was on almost every table: little bowls and big bowls, as an appetizer or an entree.

While so many restaurants bill themselves as green, boast of their seasonal, organic, local and market-driven menus, Taste of Thailand is not just seasonal, not just market-driven, but garden-driven. Rick and Noy use their plants the way cooks do in Thailand — at all stages of their life cycle, pulling young basil and herb shoots one day, mature plants another. They decide on the compositions of some of the dishes in the morning, while poking around the higgledy-piggledy mess of plants. (According to Rick, they don't plant in rows, don't organize or separate their stock, but just grow a little bit of everything wherever they feel like putting it.) Mint looks good? There's going to be a lot of mint on the plates that day. How about young basil, or garlic in all its stages? It's an interesting way to make a menu, a more interesting way to run a kitchen. No dish tastes the same from week to week, sometimes day to day. All those chefs out there who brag about going to the farmers' markets and pulling their supplies straight from the fields? Taste of Thailand, with its ever-changing specials and tight menu, its tiny dining room and waits at the door, is what they are really reaching for. The restaurant where intent becomes reality.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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