My recent visits to the new Bhan Thai at Centennial and Garden of the Gods have given me hope for the gastronomic future of our little hamlet. Why? Because the food is excellent, the space is pleasant and the place not yet three months old was slammed at lunch, even though it's next door to a Subway.
It didn't take long to understand why such a big lunch crowd chose Bhan Thai, despite having to wait a few minutes for a table. I've never been to the location opened nearly five years ago on North Academy Boulevard, but owners Piyada and Chaochot (who generally go by first names only) have transformed their second space into a cheery oasis. They've installed polished concrete floors in dark reds and browns, bathed the walls in two tones of fleshy peach, separated by a dark chair rail, and they've ditched the acoustic-tile ceiling in favor of a warehouse look with exposed black ducts.
A low counter where diners place orders fronts an open kitchen. After choosing from a sizable menu, and picking a protein beef, chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu you grab a seat at one of the tables or a stool at the wrap-around counter. Before long, the steaming plates arrive.
Though brief, that wait can seem awfully long as the smoke of stir-fried meats and chiles hangs heavily. The anticipation is appropriate, especially if you're waiting for the superb tom kha gai soup ($2.95/$5.95). Built on a coconut-milk broth, it brings together lemongrass, galangal, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves and bird chiles with perfectly simmered chunks of chicken or shrimp. It's hard to imagine a more flavorful, restorative way to begin a meal or to combat the looming cold. The crisp and creamy crab-and-cheese wontons ($2.95) also make for an excellent starter.
Flavors continue to shine in the excellent pad Thai and two stellar wide-noodle dishes: drunken noodles and black soy noodles (all $5.95). Both offer a rustic mix of sweet, earthy and spicy flavors. More importantly, the noodles have a firm, satisfying texture. They could be improved only by a bit more char flavor, which would complement the chosen protein.
Although a bit looser than I like, the curry dishes ($5.95) also showcase concentrated and unique flavors. Green curry delivers a careful balance of coconut milk, galangal and coriander, and the panang pops with a more aggressive blend of black peppers, red chiles and dusty, sun-baked spices.
When dishes do come up a bit short, it's caused by a lack of distinctiveness rather than a failure of execution. Such was our experience with two stir-fried dishes: Dragon's Fire ($5.95) and Pad Prig Pao Talay ($7.95). Both featured well-cooked bamboo shoots and other vegetables, but surrendered their individuality to identically simple sauces.
Interesting beverage choices amplify the intrigue of a Bhan Thai meal. The Thai iced tea ($1.95) is anything but ordinary, with a particularly rich blend of strong black tea, star anise, cinnamon and vanilla, sweetened with sugar and stirred with evaporated milk. Coconut juice ($1.95) is another fascinating option: crystal clear, with heady fresh and toasted coconut flavors, all topped with a chunk of soft, young coconut flesh.
One of the world's most flavorful cuisines, Thai cooking has largely been poorly represented in these parts. Not at Bhan Thai.
4431 Centennial Blvd, 266-1309 (reviewed), also at 1025 N. Academy Blvd, 574-3401, bhanthai.net
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.