Authenticity. It is a vague and ever-changing term that in our global world, I would argue, is continually being re-defined. When do new variations on old dishes become authentic themselves? Why, when talking about "ethnic" foods (read this for a great explanation of what that word even means anymore), do we even feel like that is something necessary to strive for? And for that matter, how many of us even know what we are talking about?
What is authentic? Webster's online dictionary does indeed include one entry that defines it in the manner in which we are used to using the word with food: as something that is "done in the same way as the original". Another definition that I like is "not false or imitation", or in non-dictionary speak, "real".
I too get caught up in this idea of the true-to-the-original "authentic" at times when picking my favorite Mexican foods. Take my beloved pastor, for example: it needs to have pineapple and marinated pork roasted on a spit. But in the end I would argue that it is less important whether the food we enjoy is authentic in this way, but rather in the second definition I gave: that it is real, and not false or imitation.
I bring this up in this post because Thai food is one of those cuisines where authenticity always seems to enter into the debate. I've been to Thailand and spent my days there devouring any and everything that came near me. Much of it was so different and new that I can't to this day describe it all that well. And authentic? I take that much of it was made "in the same way as the original", but what made it so good is that much of it was cooked with such sincerity and honesty --or realness.
US Thai Cafe, across the street from Sloan's Lake in lovely Edgewater just beyond the glow of the entryway spanning 25th Ave, may or may not be authentic in the sense of being true to the original--I'm certainly not an authority to decide. But in this country, when Thai food is often dumbed-down, restrained and understated; US Thai is vibrant, bold and strong. It is also entirely real. Genuine. Heartfelt.
And the owners and kitchen staff all are of Thai descent, so they are also not afraid to throw in some real spice as well--something I clearly remember from my days in Bangkok and beyond. In fact spice is what they have become (in)famous for in the Denver Thai-food scene. Though don't let that fool you, the flavors are there as well-- and the care and depth of a real home cooked meal is present from start to finish.
Four of us sat down that night under the "Ped Mak Mak" chalkboard, one of several chalkboards placed in the west dining room with mini-lessons in the Thai tongue. How relevant this word would become in our meal was yet to be discovered. I had heard about the reputation of US Thai, but I am not one to shy away from spicy food, so I was prepared for anything.
Of course when we started to order our server kindly and routinely warned us non-Thai patrons that "spicy" really meant "Thai spicy". Our party got a little shy at that point and we only ended up with one spicy plate at my urging-- the final plea being "It's for the blog!" I couldn't rightly write this post if I hadn't eaten spicy at US Thai. The rest of the plates ended up being medium.
Our first plate out was Soom Tam, or a green papaya salad with peanut, tomatoes and green beans. And chiles. I took the first bite-- a big one-- and got a little worried, but also really excited: this was incredibly spicy. An instant burn followed by a gradual build of a truly intense pepper. And then a lingering, painful yet numbing, satisfying yet biting after-burn. It was still quite delicious, and the lemon juice cut into the spice some. Yet there was no mention of spicy on the menu for this salad. "Yikes," I thought, "We're in for a wild ride," and I smiled meekly at my table-mates trying to ignore their glares.
But really no one at our table was any kind of slouch when it comes to handling the spice. We polished off the salad and cooled off with some very good piping-hot steamed pork dumplings.
Toomyam soup was up next. It was delicious--and spicy. Toomyam soup is a lemongrass-based soup perfectly sour with fish sauce, and chock full of thick-cut mushrooms, onion, basil and cilantro.
Our mouths already felt a little scarred when the classic Pad Thai came out. This was the one dish that was supposed to be spicy. It did not disappoint, but by this time our palates were already so stimulated with spice (e.g. burning) that it didn't seem all that spicier than anything else. And the flavors were so bold that it was incredibly delicious nonetheless: simple, classic-- and spicy.
By now the sweat dripping down the nape of my neck was constant, and I slurped my ice water in vain. But I was happy. I enjoy this kind of spice. It is refreshing. And the food was not without substance. It was well-flavored and all had a homemade taste and feel. One example was the Jungle Curry: big chunks of meat, zucchini, carrots, bamboo shoots and green beans. Jungle curry is more of a broth than the coconut milk blended curries you might traditionally think of, and it was like a big bowl of Thai comfort.
We also ordered something called the "Pak US Thai Special". It was a delicious stir-fry vegetable medley that we got with succulent pork slices. Like everything else it was fresh, bold and (this is starting to get redundant) a bit spicy.
We cooled down for dessert with a so-so mango sticky rice. Only really because the mango itself was in pretty poor shape.
The best analogy of eating at US Thai when you order spicy is that it is like running a marathon, but without all the annoying exercise and movement. I've eaten single hotter items, but it has been a while since I've sat down to a continuous spread of spicy food like that. As we enter the winter months it is a good pick for clearing the sinuses and generally staying warm, both with the comfort of the cooking and the intense searing heat of chiles.
So how authentic is US Thai? I don't know. When using the definition that compares how much it is like the original, I would venture to say about as close as you can come in Colorado. But when does this definition begin to morph? How many generations later does it become authentic for being done the same way it always has been done out in Edgewater? But I digress. To sum it up, when referring to the definition of authentic as "not false", US Thai keeps it real like a Dave Chappelle skit. So take a trip out to Sloan's Lake and cross the street to historic Edgewater: I doubt you'll be disappointed.
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