By the time we arrived at Bhan Thai Orchid on a recent Sunday afternoon, the lunch crowd had thinned to one long table -- an extended family enjoying a leisurely meal -- and ourselves. My guests were chefs and lifelong restaurateurs, up from Pueblo for a grocery shopping spree in the Springs.
Though Southpointe Plaza is one of those hundreds of nondescript sheet metal and cinder block strip malls that line Academy Boulevard, once you enter Bhan Thai Orchid you begin to feel a soothing Asian ambiance that has been carefully and tastefully planned. The walls are painted a soft yellow -- a cross between wheat grass and dry mustard -- and the tables are covered with cloths the color of celery. Light wood chairs with woven seats ring the room, and elegant black-and-white photos of Thai scenes hang all around.
Our kind, gentle waitress warned us up front that she had only one cook working in the kitchen and that service might be slow. We assured her that was fine, and enjoyed a pot of tea and the pleasant surroundings while we waited. In the quiet interim, she returned to our table time and again, pouring more tea, filling our water glasses and whispering, "Sorry. Sorry. Thank you. Sorry."
Our meal arrived all at once after a lengthy wait -- appetizer, soup and entrees together -- but again, we didn't care. The fragrances rising out of the bowls that crowded our table were intoxicating, washing away any lingering inklings of impatience.
The first course, Tom-Kha Gai ($6.25 for three), a creamy chicken, lemongrass, coconut soup, was quite simply one of the most divine concoctions I've ever tasted. Chicken stock and coconut milk are mixed in proportions that render the soup sweet and only slightly salty, and hunks of lemongrass and ginger float throughout, emitting their essences. Slivers of white chicken give the soup a little body, and large chunks of fresh tomato provide a surprising, refreshing taste counterpoint. The resulting flavor is perfectly balanced -- a warm nectar so delicious you cannot avoid bringing the soup cup to your lips to drink the last few drops.
Our vegetarian egg rolls ($1.25) were hot, crispy and not greasy, loaded with rice noodle, carrot slivers, onion and celery, and came with a very sweet dipping sauce.
We tried two of Bhan Thai Orchid's three curry varieties -- spicy green, which turned out not to be too hot, and a mellow yellow curry. The red curry, Kang Dang, served with bamboo shoots and fresh basil leaves, will have to wait for another visit.
All the entrees on the menu, including the curries, can be ordered with your choice of chicken, beef, pork or tofu, and come served with a generous pile of steamed rice. The spice in the green curry, Keow Wan ($6.75), was cut with coconut milk, and didn't burn the throat but left a nice nasal tingle. We tried it with pork, and the dish was nicely colored with carrots and broccoli.
My favorite was the Massaman Curry ($6.75), a mild yellow curry which I ordered with shrimp. Bamboo shoots and peanuts provided texture, and the sauce was soaked up by generous wedges of boiled potato. This was a soothing, filling dish, a good choice for a safe introduction to Thai cooking.
We also enjoyed the Pad Khing ($5.90) a melange of crisp-tender vegetables -- tomatoes, mung bean sprouts, broccoli and onion -- swimming in a dark brown ginger soy sauce.
When the entrees were gone, we returned to the soup which had come in a large stainless steel tureen, and capped off the meal with a final cup of that dreamy essence. Stuffed, we had no room for dessert, though we were lured by the choices -- coconut ice cream ($2.50) or Ruby of Siam ($2.50), described as "sweet water chestnuts, fresh coconuts topped with coconut milk and ice."
Bhan Thai Orchid offers a number of traditional Thai noodle dishes, including Pad Thai ($6.45), rice noodles with egg, bean sprouts, ground peanuts and green onions, and Kee Mow or Drunken Noodle ($6.45), wide rice noodles with spicy chili sauce and fresh basil. We did not try the noodles, but watched with rising interest as platter after platter emerged from the kitchen and were served to the family across the way.
Other menu items that will have to await a return visit are the intriguing sounding Som Tum ($5.75), described as "papaya salad with peanuts, chili and special sauce," and Pla Rad Prig, a pan-fried whole catfish with spicy chili sauce ($8.50).
Despite the minimal staff of two on the day of our visit, we left Bhan Thai Orchid full and satisfied, grateful for the service we had received. And, aaaaaaaah, just the memory of that coconut soup was enough to set us dreaming of another visit soon.