Parked at the heart of Asia’s culture is the food of its people. Earth-toned curries, skewered meats, fresh fish, noodles and steaming soups often prepared at home, make their way to food stands. Known as “street food,” it lines the roadways and alleys in portable carts and makeshift storefronts.
Locals craft their specialties from farm-fresh ingredients, indigenous spices and a rich history of homegrown recipes. They feed millions of residents and travelers, alike, with dishes as well known as fried rice and as exotic as fried insects.
“In Asia, 80 percent of people eat in the streets,” says Chef/Owner Mary Nguyen of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro. Her newest restaurant, located at the Shops at Vallagio in Englewood, is teaching Denver a thing or two about Southeast Asian street eats.
For a city that drools just as much over fine dining as food-truck fare, Denver has grown a culture of favor hounds hungry for adventure, high quality fare and a pinch of cool. That’s why Nguyen’s first restaurant Parallel Seventeen has seen so much success.
Her repertoire spans the cuisine of numerous countries and her reputation for superb Asian fare in this city has gone sky high. Yet, Nguyen specializes in street food. “It’s close to my heart,” she says. Her menu is as easy to peruse as the systematized hawker markets of Malaysia and Singapore. Each item is color-coded, corresponding to the country it originates from.
Asian street food is just as rich in favor as it is in history. Typically, each street vendor specializes in one item. Take the Japanese hawker who only dishes ramen, or the Vietnamese peddler whose pho has a following. Their recipes, carts and even locations are often passed down for generations. Nguyen explains that it’s not uncommon for one family to have a particular corner for 100 years.
Similar to those of the street vendors, Nguyen’s recipes also originate from her kitchen at home. One dish at a time, she built Street Kitchen’s menu with the same favors she encountered on the clamoring streets of Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia and China. Nguyen’s parents moved to Denver immediately following the fall of Saigon.
Later she traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, and her photographs that line the restaurant walls tell the stories of her travels in recent years. Visiting family member after family member, Nguyen admits to learning the richest lessons on culture from the families unrelated to hers—the ones who sell food on foot. “You don’t understand the feel of a country until you eat on the street,” she says.
The best way to dine at her restaurant is family style, sharing multiple small plates. I recently had the fortunate opportunity to dine at the newly opened Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, and as each dish landed on my table, I started to get a feel for countries I’ve never visited. And I found out that Japanese vendors communally share running water and other amenities in a network of underground alleys. And that consumers eat in this maze, separated only by a curtain.
I learned that in lesser-developed countries such as Bangkok, mothers who frequent food stands to feed their families are nicknamed “plastic-bag housewives” after the street vendors who sell juice in disposable bags.
Most profoundly, I got a taste of exactly what Nguyen had been describing all along. Street food has long been one of the richest assets of many Southeast Asian countries. It shortcuts you to the very essence of a nation, drawing strangers together in the streets and families together around a table. Yet no matter where you start on the map, whether you dine in Denver or Da Nang, the street always lands you in the sweetest, fullest spaces of the heart.
Road Map to the Flavors of Asian Street Food
Best known for the kind of spice that separates the men from the boys, Thai food actually balances five fundamental favors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy. while some of the most popular dishes include coconut milk-based curries and soups, Thai noodle dishes are the ones you’ll see quite commonly served in the streets. when ordering from Street Kitchen’s menu, include at least one curry dish for the table.
Menu Color: Green represents Thailand’s lush landscape, rich favor and abundant use of fresh herbs and vegetables in its cuisine.
Must tries: Tom yam Kung Soup, Thai Shrimp + Pineapple Fried Rice, Massaman Curry
With more robust favor than you can shake a Saigon cinnamon stick at, Vietnamese cuisine incorporates vegetables, pungent herbs such as mint, cilantro, Thai basil and lemon grass, sizzling meats and adventure (fish sauce, anyone?). the most notable features include freshness and texture, (think rice noodles, raw jicama and pickled veggies). often times the aroma hits your table well before a Vietnamese dish does.
Menu Color: Blue represents the bountiful waters of Vietnam. Floating markets host various vendors selling food from their boats.
Must tries: Bahn It (sticky rice dumplings), Pork Vermicelli, Vietnamese Coffee Crème Caramel
Perhaps the healthiest of all Asian cuisine, Japanese fare is typically mild in favor and low in sugar and fat. Not only is Japanese cuisine good for you, it also comes with a side of masterful preparation and artful presentation. Staples include rice, soup, raw fish and creativity. If your experience with Japanese goes only as far as ramen and rolls, branch out with some of Street Kitchen’s most popular picks.
Menu Color: As vibrant as the rising sun and full of fast-paced energy, Japan is represented in orange.
Must tries: STK Rice Paper Roll (one of Nguyen’s originals), Okonomiyaki, Miso Glazed Beef Short Ribs
The favors of Malaysia cross multiple borders to land this cuisine as one of the most distinct in Southeast Asia. Flecks of Chinese, Thai and Indian influences make their way into many of the Malaysian dishes on Street Kitchen’s menu.
Menu Color: Flavorfully influenced by the pungent curries of India, Malaysian dishes are represented in yellow.
Must tries: Roti, Malaysian Chicken Satay, Char Kuey Teow, Penang Curry
Chinese food brings the balance of Yin and Yang to the table. Its favors influence the cuisine of numerous other Asian countries, mixing savory, sweet and sour ingredients. most Chinese dishes come in bite-size pieces, making eating on the street quick and easy. typically steamed rice or noodles accompany a variety of roasted or fried meats and vegetables. Dim sum and dumplings are a must!
Menu Color: Red, of course, is the color signifying the wide assortment of Chinese delicacies.
Must tries: Scallop Dumplings, STK Har Gow Shrimp, Vegetable Bao, Char Siu, Hong Kong Noodle Soup