There is no shortage of multi-ethnic Asian restaurants in the Denver area. You’ve probably visited one before, the kind that features a sprawling menu of Chinese dumplings, Japanese sushi rolls, and Thai curries, where you can cross three or four different countries in one order. While the cultural status of Pan-Asian and Asian fusion restaurants is controversial, Asian restaurateurs in the United States are often happy to rely on disparate nations to put their menus together, regardless of any discussion of authenticity.
I admit I used to raise my eyebrows at a menu that seemed too varied to me. “How can they cook all these different cuisines well?” My hunch was that these restaurants prioritized quantity over quality, so my best chance for an enjoyable dining experience was figuring out which cuisine they cooked best or not visiting in the first place. However, I have found that the lines between national cuisines are blurry; there is no standard culinary repertoire that can fully reflect the eating habits of a country; and there are countless reasons why a given location can combine the tariff of one country with another. The proof? Here are three multi-ethnic Asian restaurants in the Denver area and the stories behind their transnational offerings.
At the family-run Taw Win restaurant, matriarch Halen Lwin offers a half Thai-Burmese menu with familiar fare and dishes not found anywhere else in Denver. Lwin was born in southern Myanmar, near the Thai border, where she was exhibited in the kitchens of both countries. However, growing up in this region was not just fun and fun. As a student, she took part in a 1988 protest (aptly called the uprising of 8888) against the ruling military junta at the time. Once the government started cracking down on protesters, Lwin says, she fled into the jungle for three years until she landed in a Thai refugee camp.
There she stayed for another three and a half years before moving to the United States. It was in the camp that his idea for a Burmese-Thai restaurant sprouted, which finally came to fruition with the opening of Taw Win last year. The restaurant offers Thai classics like pad see ew and papaya salad, but you can taste Lwin’s roots better in mohinga, Myanmar’s national dish. The salted fish broth bowl is filled with slippery rice noodles and tilapia flakes, deeply flavored with garlic as well as ginger, lemongrass and banana stem. Garnish with cilantro and crispy chunks of split pea fritters for a soup experience that will soothe your soul. 1120 Yosemite Street, Aurora
It was a happy moment when Tsegi Wangberg, of Mongolian descent, took possession of Sushi Kai and Mongolian cuisine last December. Just as she started opening a restaurant, the establishment – which previously served only Japanese food – began to look for a new direction, so Wangberg seized the opportunity. His goal was to bring traditional Mongolian cuisine to Denver, but rather than reworking the entire menu, Wangberg decided to add his Mongolian flair to it. “Introducing new cuisine is very risky,” she said, noting how Japanese offerings allow her to access a larger consumer base.
The choice of bringing together Japanese and Mongolian cuisine 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 Mongolian dishes.) For a taste of something new, try khuushuur, deep-fried pastries filled with organic ground beef and vegetables. Unlike similar dishes from other countries, the seasoned meat goes into the raw dough, which makes the pastries juicier and smoother. As Wangberg says, Mongolian food is not very spicy, so for many items, carnivores can savor the rich taste of the meat on their own. 682 S. Colorado Boulevard, Glendale
Diners may wonder why Jaya Asian Grill, a restaurant operated by a Vietnamese family, specializes in Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean dishes. For father and chef Leo Tran, the answer is simple: he just loves cooking these kitchens. Tran’s son Kent recounts how his father never really enjoyed cooking their heritage food, so instead he found culinary inspiration in kitchens in other parts of Southeast Asia. You can tell, however, that the establishment was previously owned by a Singapore family friend, as Singaporean offerings shine among the many options on the menu.
Hainan 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 drizzle with a sip of the delicate chicken broth that accompanies the meal. Insider tip: If you want to try another iconic Singaporean dish, ask for the chili crab. The market-priced dish isn’t on the menu, but the family are happy to serve the impressive plate of fried Dungeness Crab topped with a sticky sweet sauce that’s much less spicy than the name suggests. Each order contains a whole crab, and the price is well worth it if you’re up for a treat. 1699 S. Colorado Blvd., Unit B