Cafe Society

Thai Monkey Club: This place is hot!

You want it Thai hot?" the server asked when I ordered my kana moo krob. Incredulous, he repeated the question, practically begging me to reconsider. But I didn't want to reconsider. I wanted my crispy pork with Chinese broccoli amped up to its maximum sweat-inducing capacity. At Thai Monkey Club, that means Thai hot, a level six on the restaurant's six-point heat index, the usual gradations of mild, medium and hot not up to the task of capturing the fiery nuances of authentic Thai cuisine.

See also: A Closer Look at Thai Monkey Club

Only one other person at our table was up for the six, the rest sticking to drunken noodles, curries and stir-fries in the safer twos and threes. As we waited for our food — which took a while, since this ten-month-old spot on East Colfax runs a bare-bones staff — I had plenty of time to consider what I had chosen not to reconsider. Would the heat clear my sinuses like a burst of horseradish, making me curse the lack of a beer (no liquor license yet) to cool myself off? Would it kill my palate so I'd be unable to eat? Or would the burn creep up softly, hiding its spicy dagger in an initial cloak of soy?

My friend got to the pork first and declared it "not too bad," which I took as an indication that his tongue was still intact. I also took it as "not too good," because I noticed he didn't reach for more. My mouth still humming from the chiles and pickled peppers I'd swirled into my barbecued-pork noodle soup, it was my turn to walk the plank. The thin sauce wasn't fire-engine red, as I would have expected from all the chiles, but black, and it coated both deep-fried pork belly and wilted green leaves an ominous shade. I swallowed and waited a second, then ten seconds. My tongue was still there, as were my lips. Despite the heat, I could taste the rich fattiness of the pork, the bitterness of the broccoli. "Not too bad," it seems, meant surprisingly (and survivably) tasty.

Indeed, if I hadn't placed the order myself, I would've pegged the krob as a three or a four. Curious if this said more about me than Thai Monkey's definition of Thai hot, I called co-owner Sirishom Hakamjarn. "I used to do what the customer wants, but now I do less," explained the Thai native, who said she got tired of throwing away food sent back because it was too spicy. "Now a six wouldn't be as hot as before, unless they're a regular customer." Hakamjarn's mother trains all the cooks — many of whom are Thai refugees who don't speak English — and these days tells them to use three, not four, teaspoons of chile powder for Thai hot.

Even if the heat level isn't exactly as you'd find it in Thailand, nearly everything else is, making Thai Monkey Club my new go-to spot for authentic fare — and an atmosphere that includes plastic plates, a lavender-and-lime color scheme, and Star Trek reruns playing loudly on the small dining room's TV. The most noticeable difference between this and other Thai food you've probably had in Denver is the lack of sugar. Not that certain dishes aren't sweet. Pad see ew, for example, is traditionally made for children, so its wide rice noodles are slicked with the sweet soy sauce that holds universal appeal for little ones. But dishes that shouldn't be sugar-forward aren't. "I don't think Americans like sweet food. Maybe dessert, but not food," said Hakamjarn, who worked in several Thai restaurants in Denver before opening the first Thai Monkey Club on Broadway two years ago, and who often found the food she was serving at those spots too sweet to eat. "I do what it should taste like."

Without so much sugar, other flavors like tamarind, lime, lemongrass and, of course, chiles have a chance to shine. Introduce yourself to all of them through the starters — perhaps the minty larb with minced chicken and roasted rice, and the pla-nua, with medium-rare strips of marinated steak and plenty of cilantro, chiles and lime. Or try the papaya salad, as much a part of daily life in Thailand as sweet, milky tea, with long strands of green papaya spiked with tamarind and limes. At lunch, order one with a bowl of lemongrass- and kaffir-lime-leaf-infused tom kha, and you'll never have to go to Panera again when you want soup and salad.

Tom kha isn't the only dish on the menu to benefit from coconut milk, which Hakamjarn imports from Thailand by the pallet. Its extra-creamy, coconutty flavor is one of the reasons that these curries are as different from what you're used to as Swiss Miss is from hot cocoa made with bittersweet chocolate and cream. (Another might be that Nai Banya, who runs the kitchen on East Colfax, livens up the flavors by first toasting the curry paste in a wok.) Caramel-colored massamun is the mildest curry here, with a faintly sweet peanut sauce. Red curry paste forms the base of the jungle curry, but without coconut milk to soften its edges, it tasted the way spice rubs smell — so strong that we left most of the tender chicken, carrots, eggplant, broccoli and baby corn in the bowl.

If you only get one curry, make it the green, a mix of imported curry paste, lime leaves and krachai (similar to ginger) that's so fragrant, I wanted to turn it into ice cream, like a Thai-curry version of green tea. I might not feel that way if the kitchen used more of the traditional fish sauce in the mix, but here it's replaced by extra oyster and soy sauce in a rare concession to the American audience. Fish sauce is also left out of another standout dish, pad kra pao, with stir-fried ground pork, basil, peppers and onions coated with a blend of thick and thin soy sauce. But the kitchen doesn't go so far as to bone the tilapia, which is deep-fried and served whole (albeit headless). It's worth picking around the bones to pluck out the flaky flesh, chewy on the edges like jerky and irresistible with a smear of chile-lime sauce.

Finish your meal with a bowl of fat, boba-like pearls swimming in more coconut milk, curiously named Thai Monkey Floating, and you won't have anything to reconsider. Except, perhaps, whether you're going to be able to convince the server on your next visit that when you say Thai hot, you mean it.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz