Pad Thai serves as nearly everyone’s introduction to Thai cuisine; the ubiquitous, peanut-y noodle dish is so common in this country that you can even find packaged versions on grocery-store shelves. Colorful curries come next in terms of popularity, but beyond those, Thai cuisine’s roster of rice and noodle bowls doesn’t get much exploration.
That’s changing, though, as the intricate cooking techniques and bold ingredients of Thai food capture America’s attention, in part because of chef-restaurateur Andy Ricker, a stickler for traditional methods of food preparation, who opened Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, in 2005 and was awarded Best Chef Northwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2011.
How can one little restaurant in the Pacific Northwest influence an entire nation? Since the James Beard Award, the media’s focus on Ricker has bordered on fanatical, while outposts in New York and Los Angeles brought Pok Pok to major markets. And you can blame a dish called khao soi.
The coconut-curry noodle soup, which originated in the northern city of Chiang Mai (near the border with Burma), was one of the specialties that Ricker brought back from his extensive tours of Thailand. He wasn’t the first in the U.S. to serve khao soi; Las Vegas’s Lotus of Siam has been specializing in Northern Thai cuisine since 1999, and its chef, Saipin Chutima, earned herself a Beard Foundation nod for Best Chef Southwest the same year as Ricker.
But since the early part of this decade, khao soi has been popping up at more and more Thai eateries, including some here in Denver. Here are four places to find the flavorful dish; by coincidence, they’re all on Broadway — three on Denver’s main north-south drag, and one on Boulder’s street of the same name.
Taste of Thailand
2120 South Broadway
Noy and Rick Farrell have kept the dining room full at Taste of Thailand since 1994, first in Englewood and now in their new location on Broadway just south of Evans Avenue, where Taste of Thailand relocated after its original building was demolished. The couple’s vegetable garden provides many of the herbs and greens in the restaurant’s brightly colored dishes, but for the weekend-special kow soy (as it’s spelled on the menu), Noy’s approach is a little more international. She and her brother and sister-in-law (who both also work at the restaurant) are from the northern Thai provinces of Phrae and Lampang, not too far from Chiang Mai. They visit Thailand regularly to see family and spot food trends, and always return with a special curry blend that they use to make their kow soy.
For the dish, bone-in chicken pieces are marinated with the curry and steamed while a separate broth is made from coconut milk and a chile sauce. The steamed chicken is added to the broth and cooked more — until it falls easily from the bone. Springy yellow noodles lurk beneath the surface, and a side dish with crunchy, deep-fried noodles, pickled vegetables, lime, raw onion and toasted chile oil is provided to balance the dish. Pickled mustard greens are a traditional condiment, but on my visit, the house pickle consisted of jalapeños, carrot, turnip and cucumber.
The whole pieces of chicken and the rich sauce combine for a warming, complex stew with a heat that builds with each bite. The side dish adds acidity and more heat from the smoky chile oil, with its nearly black granules of pepper flakes suspended in brick-red oil.
This version captures everything that makes khao soi such a wonderful dish: the crunch of fried noodles, the potent soup, the bright vegetables and lime, and the tangle of soft noodles that absorb all the goodness. Call ahead to confirm that the kow soy is on the specials board — and to make a reservation, especially if you’re heading over on a weekend night.
42 South Broadway
Cho77’s opening chef, Ryan Gorby, traveled Thailand on his own and with owner Lon Symensma, and says that khao soi was one dish he sampled nearly everywhere he went, visiting street vendors and restaurants in Chiang Mai that sold nothing but the coconut-curry dish as well as market stalls throughout the country, where khao soi has spread beyond its traditional northern territory. He knew it was one dish that would make the Cho77 menu when the Southeast Asian eatery opened last spring, and despite changes that have kept that menu fresh and enticing, it’s one of the few items that has remained a constant.
Don’t look for khao soi on the roster, though; it’s listed simply as Thai coconut curry. But once you open the double-decker steel lunchbox in which the curry is served, its provenance is immediately visible. The bottom layer holds soft noodles and shredded chicken in a creamy broth freckled with orange dots of oil, while the top half contains the crunchy noodles, pickled mustard greens, cilantro and lime.
Cho77’s broth is brighter and milder than that of Taste of Thailand, but it’s equally spicy, even without the toasted-chile oil. This version compensates with fresh rings of red and green chiles in the soup and with table-top condiments like a housemade sriracha sauce that you can use to up the burn, if desired. My only complaint? The metal buckles on the lunchbox/bowl make it a little tricky to maneuver your chopsticks and spoon in order to get every last bit before calling it quits and ordering dessert.
1121 Broadway, Boulder
Terra Thai has been in business on the Hill in Boulder for a little more than two years. Its prime location at the western edge of the University of Colorado campus — at an intersection where students come and go at all hours — keeps the place hopping at lunch and dinner. A no-frills seating area and low prices reflect the demographic, and a short menu of only a dozen or so options keeps the line at the counter moving.
Terra’s khao soi comes completely assembled, with pickled mustard greens, crunchy noodles, diced shallots and a wedge of lime arranged neatly atop the soup. Slices of chicken make up the bulk of the meal, with a small mound of flat noodles submerged in a creamy broth. A photo of the khao soi at the counter includes a spoonful of toasted chile oil, but my bowl was missing that condiment (although there are bottles and jars of add-ons available). While the serving size wasn’t huge, at only $7.50 it was a cheap, filling lunch — served Boulder style, in a compostable bowl.
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Thai Monkey Club
102 South Broadway
Although Thai Monkey Club now has several locations around town, I like the original, which opened in 2011, because the crowd is always interesting and the attached lounge was a surprisingly fun little bar that still provides cold beer to go with Thai food hot enough to etch your teeth. Four years ago, you wouldn’t have found khao soi (listed as khaw soy Chiang Mai in the “Noodle Soups” section of the menu) here, but chefs and restaurant owners are no strangers at noticing trends and listening to customers.
TMC’s khao soi is just as dangerous as you would expect — but without a great deal of complexity. I come here when I’m in the mood to experience the good endorphin rush that comes with Thai chiles (the kind where you float outside your body, watching yourself spoon down more and more broth, helpless to reach out and stop yourself).
Khao soi isn’t easy to find in Denver outside of these four restaurants, but as is the tendency with trends, it will no doubt bubble up in more and more places.