Yesterday, I got a very nice note from loyal reader Jason Marsell, hipping me to some killer street food in one of the most unlikely of places.
Pad Thai on the 16th Street Mall.
I was both intrigued and highly skeptical -- my first blush of overwhelming enthusiasm giving way to some more sober and restrained thinking. I mean, hot dogs from a cart? Sure. Everyone knows that the hot dog's natural environment is a pit filled with hot, murky water, and that the highest honor any tubesteak can hope for is to be lifted from its primordial bath, dressed ceremonially in bun, mustard and onion vestments, and then served, hot and pinkly, to me. Street dogs are fantastic. I heart them big time.
Barbecue from a cart has been done with reasonable success (in Writer Square). Sandwiches from a cart are obvious. Ice cream. Donuts. Tacos. The minute someone figures out to stuff a trailer full of bacon and porno and pull it up out front of my office, they're going to be very rich.
But Thai food? I mean, okay. In Thailand, that probably makes sense. All over Southeast Asia, street food is more or less a way of life. But this is Denver and I was just a little bit dubious about the affections of Denverites for Thai noodles from a cart. When I woke up this morning, I was still wondering whether or not the people of this fine city would go for something like that.
The answer, in case you're wondering, is yes. In a really big friggin' way.
I made it down to the Mall about 11:30 this morning, walked past the virtually empty paninni concession, the lonely ice cream vendor, the guy selling authentic New Orleans-style shave-ice Sno-Balls to no one and the wiener man all alone with his Sabretts, and by the time I made it to 16th and Stout (more or less), the line for the Thai food cart was already more than ten people long. In the forty minutes or so that I stood waiting in the sun, I counted it swell to as many as twenty-two people and never shrink to less than a dozen. And I swear, if all those computer geeks out there fussing over new ways to send American Idol videos out into the ether would instead focus a little bit of their time and energy into figuring out how we could email/blog/twitter smells, that line would've been ten times as long because I would've done nothing all the while I was standing there but broadcast the lovely aroma of Thai spices, hot oil, frying bananas and searing green onions that I and my fellow street-food junkies stood cloaked in on this beautiful summer afternoon.
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The operation itself is pretty amazing. One woman, one pan, one spoon and a line of customers snaking halfway down the block, all of them braving the bums and the busses, just for a cheap hit of some of the most amazing Thai food I've had in Denver. Standing there inside her little cart (with barely enough room to turn around, yet fully outfitted as a mobile kitchen), the Thai cart lady takes orders one at a time, cooks the orders one at a time, rinses out her pans, wipes down her utensils, and then starts over again. She does this all day long, from morning until night -- a steady, unending stream of customers waiting patiently for their hand-made orders of pad Thai, green curry rice, basil beef and drunken noodles. The lady cooks fast. She cleans even faster. But it is a simple issues of mathematics: even if it takes her only three minutes to put together an order of pad Thai and a bag of fried bananas with powdered sugar, if there are twenty people in her line (as there were right around noon), that last poor sucker in the back is gonna be waiting sixty minutes for his lunch.
But you know what? It is so worth it. The pad Thai I got (which I am eating as I write this) was unlike any other pad Thai I've had -- a brick red and muddled mess of perfect noodles, peanuts, rough-cut green onions, chicken and cilantro (I had mine without the sprouts) that threw off fragrant billows of hot spice like midnight at the Hua Hin night market and ate like exactly what it was: a rustic and thrown-together plate of some of the best stuff on earth.
I didn't love the fried bananas simply because they'd been sitting awhile and (bad luck of placement) I got the last two from the old batch just as the new ones were coming out of the mini-fryer. Still, even they were better than some that I've gotten from proper restaurants not working under the bizarre constrictions of being in a cart in the middle of the street, and I ate them happily enough as I walked off down the street, carrying a little bit of Thailand in a cloud surrounding me, passing by the shoeshine man, the half-dozen posing Elvises shilling for Fortune Valley Casino, the movie shoot (or whatever it was) that required some poor bastard dressed like a caveman or a barbarian of some description to sit at the mouth of one of the alleys around California Street and be gawked at by passing tourists while the crew set up in the murk behind him.
So Jason Marsell? Good eye, buddy. I owe you a beer for bringing this one to my attention. Or better yet, maybe a nice order of drunken noodles. If only every tip I got could turn out to be as delicious as this one.