At the behest of a reader, I recently made lunch and dinner trips to the few-months-old Thai Basil on North Academy Boulevard, an extension of four similar restaurants in Denver and one in Las Vegas. Considering myself a travel-tested Thai food enthusiast, I had high expectations upon reading that the small chain had garnered a "Best Thai Restaurant" award from Denver's altweekly, Westword, in 2003.
Key information: 2003.
The first sign that something was awry came before any of the food did, when under cool lime green walls and colorful decorative mobiles I discovered that the dessert menu featured only four cakes, none made in-house. No mango sticky rice, fried bananas or anything actually Thai.
To me, this is as damning and misplaced as baklava at a sushi house or tiramisu at a Mexican place. If I wanted cake, I'd drive to Montague's or Marigold. After panang curry, this kitten purrs only for coconut ice cream. Dig?
After this, another downer: I'd forgotten to ask for "Thai hot."
Here's where things got better and worse. Better for the friendly and attentive service, a round of muddy, earthy, not-too-sweet, delicious Thai iced teas, and the quick arrival of enormous and interestingly shaped plates. Worse for three different entres (spicy Thai ginger shrimp, $10.50; Thai curry lime beef, $9.25; and Thai basil tofu, $7.95) that all tasted roughly the same under a slightly sweet and tangy brown sauce.
To be clear: They weren't bad, they just weren't spicy, and were so alike that family-style sharing became pointless but for forking different proteins from the plates. Salvation came with the Thai Basil chicken ($8.95), literally bursting with a big basil nose and rich flavor.
During this visit and the next, we had solid appetizers: stir-fried mussels in a spicy black pepper sauce ($7.95); rice paper Thai spring rolls with a fantastic peanut dipping sauce ($4.50); tom yum goong (Thai spiced soup) and simple-but-tasty chicken coconut soup (both $3.25). We also had subpar ones, including crab cheese wontons ($4.95) that were neither crisp nor Thai and the worst abomination "Thai style" egg rolls ($3.25) that were almost all roll. When squeezed, each released at least a dozen oil droplets.
Lunch portions remain generous and run a couple dollars cheaper ($5.95 to $7.95) than dinner. The consensus on these was largely positive, with the dishes at least bearing distinct personalities.
The pineapple curry ordered with tofu picked up the fruit's sweetness rather well and, when sopped up with rice, became a favorite. The Pad Thai scored average, needing more peanut garnish but benefitting from a three-quarter lime wedge that accentuated the chicken and shrimp. One co-diner particularly liked the spiced roast duck in a mildly curried coconut milk sauce, and all of us were pleasantly surprised by a rather flavorful Thai eggplant dish. The non-bitter eggplant really soaked up basil and mint to perfection.
So, Thai Basil offers some winning dishes. But if you're looking for strictly authentic Thai, other in-town options rank closer to Bangkok and stay there through dessert.