Eat & Drink

Breaking with Tradition

Chef Mark Fischer bends the rules with Phat Thai.

July 2012

Phat Thai • 2900 E. Second Ave., 303-388-7428, phatthai.com

Three Stars

The Draw

Creative Southeast Asian cuisine that’s designed for sharing and is served in an energetic Cherry Creek space.

The Drawback

If you’ve come for traditional Thai you might be disappointed; execution can be inconsistent.

Don’t Miss

Crisp pork with watermelon, roasted short-rib tacos, spicy mama phat, spicy duck, panang salmon

Price: $$ (Average price per entrée: $15) 

Food: 3 stars

Service: 3 stars

Ambience: 3 1/2 stars

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Ever since chef-owner Mark Fischer opened Phat Thai in Cherry Creek North last December, he’s been trying to convince Denver that his restaurant is not a traditional Thai eatery. He’s frustrated people don’t understand that his restaurant is more of an Impressionist’s version of Thai, one that paints with the traditional flavors of Southeast Asia (lemongrass, galangal root, coconut milk), but where the lines have been blurred for effect. Yes, you’ll find expected dishes like tom yum gung (spicy shrimp and lemongrass soup), kaeng kiew wan (spicy green curry with meat), and pad thai noodles with peanuts and egg (although here, naturally, it’s been renamed phat thai). But, really, can you blame the confused? Fischer’s menu also includes Korean kimchi, Malaysian curry, Indonesian satay, and fried chicken. And the word “Thai” is in the restaurant’s name.

“I know,” Fischer admits. “There is a bit of a disconnect.”

So here’s what you need to know in order to enjoy Phat Thai: It offers a playful and elegant meld of flavors found throughout Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. And although much of the menu may seem familiar, if a bit unpronounceable, many surprises lie in wait.

Fischer’s delectable kaeng massaman pae, for example, is a thick coconut curry laced with aromatic cardamom, crunchy peanuts, bright lemongrass, and smooth hunks of sweet potato, and it’s made with braised Colorado goat instead of the more traditional lamb. The spicy duck—in which rich meat, red bell pepper, Chinese broccoli, and earthy shiitake mushrooms sit inside a blistering pool of Sriracha and hoisin—began as a staff meal and was such a hit it’s become a menu mainstay. You’d never actually find this rendition of spicy duck on a menu anywhere near the South China Sea. (Tip: Order this dish with the sweet, dessertlike coconut rice to tame the heat.) The “Thai” fried chicken is another inspired invention. Dipped in a coating of rice flour, which creates a thin and crispy exterior, the chicken is only Thai in the sense that it relies on flavorings like sweet chiles, rice wine vinegar, and coriander. The preparation is layered and delicious when the chicken is appropriately cooked—but I’ve had pieces that were overdone and dry.

Fischer’s willingness to innovate is reflective of his long history as a chef. He launched the popular, seasonally focused Six89 in Carbondale in 1998—a restaurant that has received widespread national recognition in Bon Appétit and Food & Wine. He followed that in 2003 with the original Phat Thai, also in Carbondale, and added the Pullman in Glenwood Springs two years ago. (Last year, Esquire named the Pullman one of the best new restaurants in the country.) Before that, Fischer cooked at Fog City Diner in San Francisco, the Caribou Club in Aspen, and several restaurants in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

His lengthy experience creates an easy confidence that’s refreshing. Fischer fully understands the idiosyncrasies of taste, and at Phat Thai he encourages diners to make adjustments by including a set of condiments on each table: chiles to dial up the heat; sugar to tame it; rice wine vinegar for a dash of sour; and nam pla prik, a mixture of chiles and fish sauce that enhances the flavor of most any dish. I’m repeatedly irked by chefs so certain their tastes are the right tastes that they refuse to put salt and pepper on the table. At Phat Thai, I’m given the option, the tools, and the permission to experiment. It would be helpful, however, if the servers took the time to explain how to use the flavorings. Over the course of three visits, the array of condiments was described just once.

The balance of salty, sweet, hot, and sour is essential to Southeast Asian cuisine, and dishes here reflect that philosophy. The crisp pork with watermelon appetizer pairs jeweled pink cubes of watermelon with rich squares of pork and tops both with tangy pickled melon rinds. The sweet fruit quiets the sour rind, and both are balanced by the pleasing richness of the meat. In the spicy mama phat, zesty crumbles of ground pork are tossed with soft ramen noodles, threads of crunchy cabbage, and fragrant mint leaves to create a satisfying hot-cool, soft-crunchy, yin-yang of taste and texture.

Fischer’s food is designed to be shared, meaning that even if one single item isn’t particularly balanced, the overall mix of dishes on the table will be. To facilitate sharing, servers bring a stack of clean plates to the table. But too often not enough plates are proffered, and they’re not replenished frequently enough.

Not every item on the menu succeeds—not because of a design flaw, but rather because of a lack of choreography in the kitchen. The five-spice sticky pork ribs were smothered by an unnecessarily thick blanket of hoisin. The phat cashew beef stir-fry was overwhelmed by salty soy. The chicken satay itself was tender and perfectly cooked, but the bland peanut sauce and tasteless cucumber salad on the side reduced the appeal the same way a bad hairstyle can mar a beautiful face.

Although the menu contains a few misses, the overall effect is still pleasing, due in no small part to the space itself. Walls of windows infuse the restaurant with light, energy, and weather permitting, soft summer breezes. Subtle industrial touches—open duct work, concrete flooring—lend a modern feel that’s comfortably offset by wooden tables and bold bursts of yellow and saffron on the walls. Plus, while you feel the energy of people around you, you won’t compete with them to be heard.

Anchoring the newly refurbished Fillmore Street Plaza, Phat Thai injects much-needed vigor into Cherry Creek North’s dining scene. If you can release your preconceptions of what this restaurant is supposed to be (not traditional Thai) and allow yourself to experiment (use the condiments), you’ll find a place—and many dishes—worth discovering again and again.