The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
There is no shortage of multiethnic Asian restaurants in the Denver area. You’ve likely been to one—the kind that offers a sprawling menu of Chinese dumplings, Japanese sushi rolls, and Thai curries, where you can traverse three or four different countries in a single order. While the cultural status of pan-Asian and Asian fusion restaurants is contentious, Asian restaurateurs in the States are often happy to draw upon disparate nations to assemble their menus, regardless of any discussion around authenticity.
I’ll admit, I used to raise an eyebrow at a menu that seemed too diverse. “How can they possibly cook all of these different cuisines well?” My intuition was that these restaurants were putting quantity over quality, so my best chance at an enjoyable dining experience was to suss out which cuisine they made best or to not visit in the first place. However, I’ve discovered that the delineations between national cuisines are blurry; there is no standard culinary repertoire that can be entirely reflective of a country’s eating habits; and there are countless reasons why a given spot might combine a country’s fare with another. The evidence? Here are three multiethnic Asian restaurants in the Denver area and the stories behind their transnational offerings.
At the family-owned Taw Win, matriarch Halen Lwin offers a half Thai-Burmese menu with familiar favorites plus dishes found nowhere else in Denver. Lwin was born in southern Myanmar near the Thai border where she was exposed to both countries’ cuisines. Growing up in that area was not all fun and games, however. As a college student, she participated in a 1988 protest (appropriately called the 8888 Uprising) against the military junta in power at that time. Once the government started cracking down on protestors, Lwin says, she escaped into the jungle for three years until she landed in a Thai refugee camp.
There, she stayed another three and a half years before moving to the U.S. It was in the camp that her idea for a Burmese-Thai restaurant germinated, which eventually came to fruition with Taw Win’s opening last year. The restaurant covers Thai classics like pad see ew and papaya salad, but you can best taste Lwin’s roots in the mohinga—Myanmar’s national dish. The bowl of savory fish broth is filled with slippery rice noodles and flakes of tilapia, flavored deeply with garlic as well as ginger, lemongrass, and banana stem. Top it with cilantro and crunchy bits of split pea fritters for a soup-sipping experience that’ll soothe your soul. 1120 Yosemite St., Aurora
Sushi Kai and Mongolian Cuisine
It was a moment of serendipity when Mongolian-born Tsegi Wangberg overtook ownership of Sushi Kai and Mongolian Cuisine last December. Just as she began to pursue opening a restaurant, the establishment—which formerly only served Japanese food—began looking for new management, so Wangberg seized the opportunity. Her goal was to bring traditional Mongolian cuisine to Denver, but rather than rework the whole menu, Wangberg decided she would add her Mongolian flair on top of it. “Introducing a new cuisine is very risky,” she says, underscoring how the Japanese offerings allow her to access a wider consumer base.
The choice to bring together Japanese and Mongolian food also serves to satisfy more diners with dietary restrictions, since Mongolian cuisine almost always uses red meat. (Wangberg is experimenting with chicken and vegetarian versions of the Mongolian items.) For a taste of something new, try the khuushuur—fried pastries filled with organic ground beef and vegetables. Unlike similar dishes from other countries, the seasoned meat goes in the dough raw, making the pastries juicier and more unctuous. As Wangberg says, Mongolian food is not heavily spiced, so for many of the items, carnivores can savor the rich taste of the meat all on its own. 682 S. Colorado Blvd., Glendale
Diners may wonder why Jaya Asian Grill, a restaurant operated by a Vietnamese family, specializes in Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean fare. For father and head chef Leo Tran, it’s a simple answer: he just enjoys cooking those cuisines. Tran’s son Kent recounts how his dad never really enjoyed preparing the food of their heritage, so instead found cooking inspiration in the cuisines of other parts of Southeast Asia. You can tell, though, that the establishment was previously co-owned with a family friend from Singapore, since the Singaporean offerings shine brightly among the menu’s many options.
The Hainanese chicken rice is a classic combination of juicy poached chicken, seasoned coconut rice, and crunchy cucumber. Tailor it to your taste buds with the accompanying green onion-ginger and chili-tomato sauces, then wash it down with a sip of the delicate chicken broth that comes with the meal. Insider tip: if you want to try another iconic Singaporean dish, ask for the chili crab. The market-price dish is not on the menu, but the family is happy to serve the impressive plate of deep-fried Dungeness crab smothered in a sticky sweet sauce that is much less spicy than the name would suggest. Each order contains a whole crab, and it’s worth the price if you’re ready to tuck in. 1699 S. Colorado Blvd., Unit B