When Bad Things Happen to Good Restaurants

At the beginning of this year, Jit Nabangchang, chef/owner of J's Noodles, at 945 South Federal Boulevard, was in a terrible car accident that left her in a wheelchair and on respiratory support for life. She hasn't been back in J's kitchen since, and her staff, most of whom have been at the tiny Thai eatery since Nabangchang opened it eleven years ago, have tried to keep things going -- with mixed results.

Business has been as sporadic as kitchen quality. "Jit really kept people coming back because of her personality," says one of J's employees, who declines to give her name. "Now that she's not here, we think some people stopped coming because they miss her." As anyone in the restaurant biz knows, the more customers coming in, the higher the turnover of ingredients, which should translate to fresher, better dishes. There's also something to be said for playing to a full house: On one visit, even though we were the only other diners in the place, J's staffers kept cramming people in at the window table next to us -- probably to give passersby the impression that J's is still a busy place.

The anonymous employee says that while Nabangchang stops in whenever she can to see how things are going, she'll never be able to work again. "Jit will keep the restaurant; she's not going to sell," the woman says. "And we are working very hard to make everything the same for her."

Unfortunately, the food they're making doesn't taste the same as when Nabangchang was in the kitchen, back in the days when the fresh Thai fare at J's really took this city by storm. If J's is one of your old favorites, you might want to stop in and support the place -- but you also might not find your usual dishes up to their former high standards. Fortunately, the egg rolls ($2.25) are still excellent, as is the Bangkok barbecued chicken ($6.95). Although J's is often out of the mee krob ($5.75), a classic Thai dish of caramelized noodles, it's great when you can get it (and best in the shrimp version). And the Thai iced coffee ($1.50) will keep you jiggy for a week.

Although J's, like its owner, may never be the same, Denver has plenty of other Thai standbys. Busara, at 1435 Market Street, is ideal for a more upscale -- and more expensive -- Thai meal, if you don't mind the occasional long wait for food (see this week's 2nd Helping). One of Busara's owners, Bryan Chunton, opened a casual fast-food Thai spot called Typhoon at 1600 Broadway in Boulder a little over a month ago. The dishes all start vegetarian, but meats can be added on, and the average price for an entree is $5.50 -- quite a contrast to the price tags at Busara.

A favorite Thai restaurant remains the northern-focused Taste of Thailand (504 East Hampden Avenue in Englewood), where I drop in for a bowl of chef/owner Noy Farrell's ginger-heady chicken-based soup whenever I feel a cold coming on; she also makes some of the best pad Thai in town and an unusual and refreshing green papaya salad.

For the home cook, I don't think anything beats this pad Thai recipe from Taste of Thailand, which walks the line between sweet and too sweet; Farrell's inclusion of tamarind juice really makes the dish. Tamarind, which is also known as an Indian date, is a sour fruit that's available dried in most international or Asian markets, and it's the little-known but crucial ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. If you can't find tamarind, substitute two more tablespoons of lime juice. Also, Farrell says to buy the one-millimeter-width noodles, which are the traditional size for pad Thai.

Taste of Thailand's Pad Thai
16 ounces pad Thai noodles
2 pieces tamarind
1/8 cup water, plus 2 tablespoons
1/8 cup cooking oil, preferably peanut or canola
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup chicken, cut into strips
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 block firm tofu, drained and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 eggs
1 teaspoon dried chile pepper
3 tablespoons nam pla or other Asian-style fish sauce
2 teaspoons paprika
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups bean sprouts
1/8 cup roasted peanuts, preferably unsalted, chopped or ground
1 tablespoon lime juice
2-3 sprigs cilantro

Soak noodles in warm water to cover for ten minutes, or until they begin to soften; drain. Meanwhile, place tamarind in 2 tablespoons water and set aside. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat; sauté garlic just until golden brown. Add chicken and shrimp and sauté until just cooked; add tofu and stir everything together until tofu turns light brown. Break eggs into pan and add dried chile; wait until eggs start to set, then stir. Add noodles, remaining water, juice from the tamarind (not the fruit itself) and fish sauce. Stir quickly until noodles are completely soft. Sprinkle with paprika and sugar. Remove from heat and add bean sprouts, peanuts and lime juice. Stir to incorporate and garnish with cilantro. Serves 5.

In news from the other side of the South China Sea, our only Indonesian restaurant, Bali Island (2637 West 26th Avenue), is closed for now -- the sign's gone, but the eatery's answering machine says Bali Island is moving to an undisclosed new location. Let's hope so -- Bali's bright cuisine was a welcome addition to Denver's dining scene. And locals are lamenting the temporary loss of their favorite food from another island -- this time Japan -- since Taki's Golden Bowl (341 East Colfax Avenue) suffered a fire this summer. Taki expects to reopen sometime in November.

In the meantime, Japanese-food fans can get their fix at Assignments Restaurant at the School of Culinary Arts (675 South Broadway), where a Japanese fusion dinner is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on September 17. Chef Jeffrey Kennedy from Hakushika Sake U.S.A. will offer a six-course meal with matching sakes for $40. Call 303-778-6625.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner