Ask a Denverite where to find authentic Southeast Asian cuisine and more often than not, you’ll likely be sent to a place that serves excellent pho. Locals have been fortunate for many years as Thai and Vietnamese restaurants have begun to build a strong presence here. But there’s still so much more to this category of cuisine that has yet to be explored. The remaining countries of Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Philippines and Malaysia lack the representation it deserves.
For those unfamiliar with Southeast Asian food, you’re in for some hearty soups, rich curries and noodles. A bold cuisine with layers of flavor, crunchy textures of fresh veggies and slaw with respect to fragrant herbs. For the adventurous palette, here are four locations to experience the savory and spicy unexplored cuisine:
Laos & Cambodia: Woody’s Wings and Things
Where: 6817 Lowell Boulevard, Westminster
The Lowdown: Many are easily thrown off by the name, but don’t let it fool you. Southeast Asian families have been going here for over a decade to get comfort food. It’s a small spot that shares a shopping center with a mini-mart and town bar. The owner is Cambodian and has created menu options as large as a binder. It’s menu has images of each dish to help you decipher which one makes your mouth water. Adventurous eater’s love the spicy, sweet and hint of sour notes, in each bite. There is time and love spent on Lao and Cambodian dishes, in an effort to maintaining tradition.
What to order: Lao Papaya Salad, an old traditional dish that contains shredded unripened papaya, tomato, hot chili and lime ; Beef Lab, sliced steak tossed in herbs, toasted rice powder and a blend of spices; Green beans with pork belly and sticky rice.
Burma: Urban Burma
Where: 10180 E Colfax Avenue, Aurora
The Lowdown: On the map the country is named Myanmar, and this may cause some confusion to the reference of Burma. The ruling government in 1989 changed the name of the country during a tumultuous time to rid themselves of British colonial influences. Although a difficult history, their homestyle dishes were not lost. Burmese food differs from spicy Lao and Cambodian dishes, because they are rich, savory and salty. It’s comfort food on a cold day — like a bowl of rice noodles in rich curry broth. Urban Burma is in a shared space among other restaurants in Aurora’s Mango House and is the first Burmese eatery in Colorado this year.
What to order: Tea Leaf Salad, known by Burmese as lephet is pickled, fermented tea leaves tossed with cabbage, tomato, crispy lentils and garlic oil w/chili. Shan Noodles, soft rice noodles in a chicken curry soup topped with fresh greens and garlic.
Where: 830 S Buckley Road, Aurora
The Lowdown: Typically, Filipino dishes do not contain a lot of spice either, in terms of hot peppers. These dishes hold influences from Spanish and Chinese cuisines, making it multi-faceted and delicious. They keep it simple with salted fish, rice and soups. It favors methods of steaming, boiling and roasting. The Philippines are made up of many scattered islands, which give a sense as to why the heavy use of coconut and tamarind. Chowsun is a family owned and operated restaurant with a variety of Filipino cuisine options. You can find it at the tail end of a shopping center next to Lotus Asian Market.
What to order: Lumpia, Filipino style eggrolls in a sweet dipping sauce. Sisig, minced crispy pork with lemon and onion tossed in a tangy sauce. Sinigang, a tamarind based sour soup with bok choy, onions, tomatoes and chicken or pork.
Malaysia: Jaya Asian Grill
Where: 1699 S. Colorado Boulevard Unit B, Denver
The Lowdown: The restaurant provides Chinese and Thai options in an effort to offer what the community is comfortable with — in terms of Asian food, but take a closer look at the specialty dishes section to find their Malaysian plates. Malaysian food shares a similar culinary style of Indonesia. Find satays, a seasoned skewered meat or Rendang, a spicy red meat and sambal, a blend of chili paste that contains ginger, palm sugar and lime. Jaya Asian Grill is located in a shopping center near I-25 and Colorado Boulevard.
What to order: Nasi Goreng Ikan Asin, a Malaysian homestyle spicy fried rice with salted fish and shrimp. Beef Rendang, slow-cooked thick and spicy beef stew.