When Laura called at 1:25, I was sitting in traffic on Rt. 36 headed for Denver.
“I’m waiting in line at this Thai food stall,” she said, “There’s like 20 people in front of me. Should I order something for you?”
“Nah. I’m not hungry yet. Go ahead without me and I’ll find something when I get downtown.”
But when I arrived in the city 25 minutes later, then parked and walked to meet her at the corner of 16th and Stout, I was ravenous. And Laura was still four people away from ordering.
“It’s supposed to be amazing,” she assured me.
I leaned in to read the menu, taped sideways to the inside of the cart’s back window. The staples were all there—Pad Thai, Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodles), a daily rotating curry (Green, Masaman, Panang), crab cheese wontons and fried vegetable, chicken and banana-stuffed eggrolls. A flow chart instructed us to specify our spice preference first, ranging from “Baby Spice” to “FIRE.”
The Thai Food Cart is no secret among Denver locals, especially those who work downtown and rush the stall during lunch hours. The owner, a woman with a round clear face who was born in a small town near the border with Laos and prefers not to give out her name, built the cart herself, from scratch, with the help of a friend and countless trips to Home Depot over the course of three months.
She writes on her website,”The idea came from a question I asked myself, ‘How do I survive in America without a degree or TOEFL English Certificate?'”
She tackled this question with the city’s 4′ x 6′ food cart regulation as her only guideline. “We kept buying things and returning them, buying more things and returning them for three months, day after day, sometimes two or three times in one day since we didn’t know much about what we were building. I can only imagine what the workers at Home Depot thought about us!'”
The Cart opened in February of 2001 and has since gathered a hungry, enthusiastic following. “I want to push this cart back to Houston and park it in front of my house,” they rave, “I starve myself for this woman’s cooking.”
Indeed, Laura and I were (still) waiting for good reason. As we inched closer to the window, I realized that the Thai Food Lady (as she’s been dubbed on yelp) was making each dish almost from scratch—tossing spices and curry pastes onto the coconut milk and pre-steamed veggies in her wok.
“I feel like she’s my personal chef,” Laura whispered, cracking open a can of coconut water.
I ordered my green curry “medium juicy” (apparently traditional Thais like their curry heavy on flavor and low on milk, but I like mine saturated in both) and “Nicy-Spice” (I’m a wimp).
While she sauteed, I asked if I could take her photo. She laughed with a large bright smile to say no. “Not without make-up,” she stated firmly, the steam rising up from her stove, “In the morning maybe. But now, it’s too late.”
Laura ordered her Pad Kee Mao, we handed over $6 each (tip and tax included!) and settled down onto the pavement, chopsticks in hand.
Our lunches were heavy on spice and rich in flavor. Not the one-dimensional, generic “curry seasoning” flavor that comes from adding a dab of pre-made paste, as I often do at home, but flavor with depth, with ginger and lemongrass and cumin and chilis, distinct but blended, each taste building on the others. This is the difference between generic spice blends, and cooks who know how to build a flavor, adding each seasoning at a specific time to interact with the other ingredients.
It was somewhere between bites 2 and 3 that I vowed to come back.
Which I did, two months later, with Avy, whose extensive travels in Southeast Asia and accompanying spice tolerance qualifies her, in my mind, as Thai Food Expert.
Accordingly, Avy insisted on ordering FIRE, ignoring my attempts to save her tongue and tastebuds from what I was sure to be fast and imminent destruction. But she handled it like a pro, red-faced, teary-eyed and smiling, closing the Styrofoam lid half-way through to save for later (she ended up giving it to a street musician back in Boulder, and may have forgotten to mention the spice level.)
We ate on the sidewalk, sweaty backs pressed to the Dress Barn windows, and watched the mid-day city pace back and forth at our feet. Canvasers from Planned Parenthood collected signatures (one stopped to sniff our lunches and asked, “Is that food cart any good?”). An ambling, possibly drunk man stopped to tell us about his Thai ex-husband, then asked to taste a bit of Avy’s pad thai to see just how spicy it was, which she gracefully placed in the palm of his hand with her chopstick. The business suits and sneakers and shopping bags and trams raced up and down the mall.
We both agreed that in a perfect world there would be less Styrofoam and plastic involved, more salad and spring roll options. (There’s got to be a Styrofoam alternative that’s cheap enough and well-suited to splashy, soaked-through take-out.) But it was hard to complain, having just been served a delicious meal for $7, this time, including wontons.
There is something rare and refreshing about seeing my food being spiced and sauteed, interacting face to face and handing cash directly to the person who just stirred the curry and friend the wontons. Something about sitting back on a busy sidewalk to soak in the activity along with my take-out.
This is proof, I think, that “fast food” and “slow food” don’t have to be polar opposites. There’s room in the middle for human interaction, for affordable and accessible and delicious. And it doesn’t have to be some grand movement or clever marketing scheme. Just common sense. A creative solution born from the honest desire to provide something of value and make a living in the process. Exactly like this woman (whose name I’m determined to learn), her mobile tray of multi-colored spices, her hand-built cart.