Cafe Society

Thai Flavor curries favor with reviewer Laura Shunk

The best curry I've ever tasted was at a pop-up beer garden near the banks of the Mekong River on the border between Thailand and Laos. The proprietors had pieced together a kitchen from a series of elaborate camp stoves, and they used it to feed a huge crowd, waiters tottering between plastic tables with platters loaded with beer, baskets of rice and that sublime curry. Using their mortar and pestle and a collection of sauté pans on the stoves, the cooks had created a fiery, orange-hued curry, dotted with angry-looking red chiles and full of pieces of bell pepper, eggplant and prawns. It was incredible, and I dream of it still.

Curry is a mainstay of Thai cuisine — served at roadside stands, in top-end joints and everywhere in between. It's one of a handful of dishes you'll find in every corner of the country, albeit in very different forms. But Thai curry didn't originate on the Indochinese peninsula. Nor did it come from China or Europe, the two areas that most heavily influenced Southeast Asian fare. Rather, it migrated from India centuries ago, becoming thinner as it moved north. Thai curry is soupier than the Indian version — still made from a paste that includes hot chile peppers, cumin and turmeric, but most of the dried herbs, such as cardamom and cinnamon, have been replaced with fresh ones.

Although curry is ubiquitous in Thailand, it wasn't until the 1970s that Thai curry really made its way to the United States. It evolved in this country, too — but not for the better. Most of the renditions you find here are utterly mediocre: too sweet, too simple, too made from a pre-mixed paste. There are exceptions, of course. My old neighborhood in Los Angeles County had several restaurants that slung the real thing: Thai curry that was simultaneously hearty and delicate; sweet, savory and spicy; complexly layered with garlic, ginger, woody galangal and piney lemongrass. Thickened with coconut milk, it was laced with racy green or red Thai chiles or toasted cumin and topped with a smattering of sweet-tart kaffir lime leaves or a few sprigs of fresh basil; it might have been filled with chunks of crisp vegetables and tender hunks of meat or used to smother a whole, just-caught fish.

But even those places were few and far between in Southern California, where there's a sizable Thai population. In Denver, the Thai curries I've tried in the past have always been disappointing. And after my recent trip to Southeast Asia, where I ate great Thai curry just about every day and truly sublime Thai curry in that pop-up beer garden, I was almost too frightened to try again.

And then I went to Thai Flavor.

Surin Thanon, a native of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, took over Thai Flavor seven years ago, preserving the name, the bubblegum-hued storefront entrance and the sparsely decorated dining room. She breathed life back into the menu, though, bringing her capable touch to such standards as pad Thai and the curries, and adding specialties from her home — including some, like certain whole-fish dishes, that aren't translated into English on the menu. But the offerings also sweep down the country to include southern Thai specialties, like Massaman curry — which is actually similar in flavor to Indian curry, with cinnamon and cloves mixed with the lemongrass and galangal — as well as dishes from Vietnam. On my first visit, I settled into a high-backed booth, slugged a light Chang beer while listening to out-of-context Billie Holliday on the speakers, and dug into a som tum green papaya salad, a preparation popular across the Southeast Asian subcontinent. I'd asked for it hot, which garnered a good-natured chuckle from my server.

"Medium," he'd said. "If it's not hot enough, I'll bring you more chiles. Or you can add the crushed ones on the table."

It was hot enough. Shreds of freshly grated crisp papaya mixed with stiff green beans and firm cherry tomato halves had been coated with sweet-garlicky fish sauce tinged with sour lime, then studded with a crunchy dusting of peanuts. And while I could see tiny bits of red chiles, which Thanon grows both in the restaurant and in her garden at home, it took three bites before the full scope of the heat hit my palate, burning slowly and steadily until I had to beg for sticky rice to soothe my tongue. That was a happy accidental order, though, because the sticky rice had been cooked just right: It was soft, chewy, grainy and so sticky that I could pull off clumps with my fingers and dip them in sauce like chunks of bread. Which I couldn't stop doing as my mouth became acclimated to the heat. I also gnawed my way through a pile of barbecued ribs, succulent beef slightly charred and caramelized by the grill, and served with hot mustard. True to versions I'd had in Asia, the ribs were imbued with an intense, smoky sweetness that cut all the way down to the bone.

Then, finally, the main event: a brimming bowl of Panang curry, creamy and caramel-colored. The first spoonful was pungent and peppery, laced with the same chile-infused heat as the salad, but this time checked by the natural sugar of the coconut milk, the savory bite of garlic and the tangy nip of a freshly squeezed lime. The curry was swimming with tender strips of pork and dotted with scallions and basil. It was a seemingly never-ending bowl, and I ladled spoonful after spoonful onto perfect, fluffy rice, slurping just the liquid when I was too full to eat more meat.

When at last I surrendered my fork and spoon, I asked my server about Thanon's curry recipe. The secret, he said, was that she makes her curries fresh and from scratch, grinding the paste with a mortar and pestle and then frying it briefly with coconut cream. She also works with seasonal vegetables, he told me, and gets a lot of the herbs from her own garden.

The curry is so good that no matter what else I order off of Thai Flavor's sizable menu, I always get a bowl. Once, I tried a whole fish smothered in curry, one of those dishes that isn't translated into English. I love whole fish, and there was a lot to love here: the way the tender flesh flaked away from the bone and the crackling skin crunched pleasantly between my teeth. But that curry still triumphed, and I couldn't help wishing that I'd skipped the protein so that I'd have more room for the sauce. And although the Panang is my favorite, the red curry is wonderful, too — spicier and lighter than the Panang, coating tender strips of beef and translucent onions and topped with whole roasted peanuts.

Except for some uninspiring, mushy fried egg rolls, complimentary at lunch, everything else I've ordered at Thai Flavor has been superb. The fresh spring rolls were much better than the fried; rice paper enclosed springy vermicelli noodles and cold, pink shrimp, with basil leaves and bean sprouts adding cold, juicy snap. At one lunch, I enjoyed a delightful pad kra pao: juicy chicken and crisped basil leaves in a savory, fiery sauce, with fresh bite added by bamboo shoots; at another, I went for the drunken noodles: chewy, flat and deceptively light, stir-fried with bean sprouts, baby corn and velvety tofu.

And one cold night I headed straight for Thai Flavor, where I huddled over a massive metal serving bowl of tom yum goong, flames shooting through the hole in the center of the bowl while the soup simmered on my table. The acidic, piquant broth was floating with plump prawns, soft straw mushrooms, chunks of stewed tomato and stalks of lemongrass; I added rice to give it more body. I followed that up with another dish that's become a favorite: juicy slices of mango next to more of that sticky rice, both coated in sweet, syrupy coconut cream reminiscent of condensed milk. It's a light dessert, a soft end to a fantastic meal — and, like the Thai curry here, the real thing.

But the curry is what keeps me coming back to Thai Flavor. It's not a beer garden on the Mekong, but it's the closest you'll come in Colorado.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk