I'd been following the group of six recent college grads since they'd first walked into Thai Street Food Restaurant, talking about how they wanted to fuel up for a night of drinking. I'd tried to distract myself by studying the watercolor paintings crammed onto one wall and the gilded tapestry hanging from another, watching the family of four celebrating in a corner. But there just wasn't that much to look at in the tiny, ten-table spot while I waited, and waited, for the first of my dishes to arrive, and beyond the faint sounds of a sizzling wok and a knife at work on a cutting board coming from the kitchen behind me, there also wasn't anything to drown out their voices.
But when I heard one of the guys say, "Papaya salad, medium-hot," I dropped all pretense and looked up from my complimentary stein of sweet Thai iced tea — no drinking here — to stare directly at them. That is a mistake, I thought, thinking of the last time I'd ordered the salad, usually one of my favorite Thai dishes, medium-hot at Thai Street Food. As expected, I'd gotten a bowl filled with crisp strands of green papaya, cherry tomatoes, peanuts and green beans all bathed in a sweet-savory fish sauce and tart lime — and mixed with far too many Thai chiles. By the time I'd finished all I could handle, everything in my body burned. A lot. I wondered if I should warn the guy.
Utumporn Killoran, the woman who owns this restaurant and does all the cooking, hails from the Isaan region of Thailand, which is up north and close to the border of Laos. The food in that part of the country channels both Thai and Lao cuisine, with curries, pork larb, green papaya salad and sticky rice. But Isaan food also has one defining characteristic: enough heat to practically blister your esophagus. And Killoran doesn't dumb down the temperature just because she's cooking for Americans, although she does offer everything on a sliding scale that includes such steps between mild and medium as "baby spice" and "nice spice," presumably so that posturing first-timers take the hint and avoid injury. For those who don't, there are boxes of Kleenex on every table.
Thai Street Food Restaurant
Thai Street Food Restaurant
11650 Montview Boulevard, Aurora
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday
Crab-and-cheese wontons $1
Green papaya salad $4
Green curry $7
Pad Thai $7
Noodle jelly salad $8
Grilled pork $8
Killoran moved to Colorado from Thailand six years ago and promptly established a cart on the 16th Street Mall, where she channels the street-food culture of her native land, cooking her specialties to order, one dish at a time. That means the wait by her cart can stretch to an hour — and even if you show up right when she opens, at 11 a.m., you're likely to have a few people in front of you. That doesn't deter Killoran's loyal followers, though. Her fans know that she makes some of the best curry in town, so good it's worth the wait.
Slide show: Thai Street Food Restaurant photos
So those fans were delighted when, three months ago, Killoran picked up a brick-and-mortar address in Aurora. Most of the week, she uses this spot as a commissary for her mobile operation, replacing the space she'd rented downtown. But on Saturdays, she turns it into a restaurant where her quiet husband waits on tables while she cooks from an expanded menu in the back. And while it's definitely more enjoyable to savor her curry while sitting at a table instead of on a bench on the 16th Street Mall or, worse, at your desk, the service here isn't any speedier. Killoran still cooks one dish at a time, and her husband delivers food to diners at the same pace, so a meal for two can easily span an hour and a half. And when there are a half-dozen diners in your party? A meal can take several hours. My thirsty neighbors were in for a long night — especially if they were going to be choking on chiles.
Finally, my first dish arrived, and I could set my moral dilemma aside and concentrate on my food. When I first spotted crab-and-cheese wontons, an American Chinese staple, on the Thai Street menu, I was stumped. But at a friend's insistence, I ordered them — and they're now a mainstay of every meal I eat there. Killoran packs wonton wrappers full of cream cheese, scallions and crab meat, folds them into triangles and then deep-fries them until the shells are crispy but not greasy, the centers tart, creamy and rich. Dipped in the sweet, gingery sauce that accompanies them, they're incredibly delicious — and, at a buck for two pieces, a real deal.
I demolished these quickly, then sat back with more sweet tea while I waited for the next dish: tom yum soup. Killoran makes a killer version — fat pink prawns bobbing in a tangy broth redolent with lemongrass, cilantro, scallions and as much chile as you think you can handle. I'd asked for nice-spicy because I wanted to taste all the flavors; with nothing in the broth to mitigate the heat, I knew even that would produce a slow burn.
As I was slurping up the last of the soup and grabbing for a Kleenex, the guy at the next table started sputtering: His papaya salad had arrived. And he wasn't the only one suffering; his entire group was gasping for breath. "I can't eat this," said one of the girls. They called Killoran's husband over and begged him to reduce the heat level in the dishes they still had coming.
I, on the other hand, wouldn't have minded more heat in my next dish, the green curry. I'd spent another night at Thai Street Food comparing curries, pitting my two favorites — panang and green — against each other. The green was the clear winner, and better than any other green curry I'd found in Denver. Made from piney galangal, green chiles, intense kaffir lime and plenty of ginger and garlic, it has a fresh bite — especially when cooked with carrots, lemongrass, peas and a good amount of pork or chicken. The green was spicier than the panang, but a hefty dose of coconut milk gave it a pleasant, heat-curbing sweetness and helped kill the effect of the chiles. The first time I'd ordered it, I'd gone with the very wimpy nice-spicy level. This time I tried the medium — and wished I'd ordered it medium-hot. But without too much heat, I could appreciate how nicely layered the curry was, with each element adding complexity to the sauce. I used sticky rice to sop up every trace, pulling off clumps with my fingers and wiping the bowl.
And then I sat, and sat, and sat. Two more steins of iced tea and a lot more sniffling at the next table later, my last dish appeared. I'd waited to sink my teeth into Killoran's grilled pork for weeks, ever since I'd seen it — or, more accurately, smelled it — coming out of the kitchen to another table. But when I'd ordered it, Killoran's husband had told me that they were out. They were also out on subsequent Saturdays, when I instead tried the pad Thai — flat noodles mixed with bits of pork and glazed with a sauce that was peanut-y, but lifted by a sour note that made the dish less oppressive — and the noodle jelly salad: slick glass noodles mixed with shrimp, pork, halved cherry tomatoes and cilantro, then doused with a light sauce tangy with ginger and lime and hot with Thai chiles.
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This night, though, I'd finally gotten lucky. Soon the meat's sweet char perfumed the air, and I grabbed my fork. It was a simple dish: fatty chunks of pork belly marinated in a sweet-savory sauce laced with ginger and garlic, then tossed on the grill and served with a chile-studded dipping sauce. But each velvety bite was a deeply satisfying reminder of Southeast Asian street food at its finest: tasty morsels fresh off a grill, consumed in unpretentious settings. I ate every last nub, and then used more sticky rice to get any sauce that remained.
The pork gone, I pondered an order of wonton-wrapped fried bananas — but decided against it, since I'd already spent two hours at dinner. As I paid my check, I listened to the party next to me daring each other to try another bite of the papaya salad that had singed their tongues.
Singed their tongues, but also made an incredible impression on their tastebuds. Thai Street Food Restaurant is Isaan fare at its finest. And some Saturday soon, I'll be back.
Slide show: Thai Street Food Restaurant photos