Dining

Review: Street Kitchen Asian Bistro

Playful Asian food in Englewood.

October 2011

Street Kitchen Asian Bistro

10111 Inverness Main St., Suite B, Englewood, 303-799-9800, streetkitchenasianbistro.com

The Draw A playful and inexpensive menu of Asian street food.

The Drawback Street Kitchen is located in the Vallagio, a new, mixed-use development in Englewood, which the dinner crowd has yet to discover. Many nights this translates to a lack of dining room buzz.

Don’t Miss Chinese sticky ribs, Malaysian roti, Thai vegetarian summer roll, banana fritters with salted caramel. Price $$ (Average price: $9.50 per entrée)

Food:
Service:
Ambience:

Our meal at street kitchen asian bistro began with a white tray of pickled vegetables. Cool cucumber halves, thin sticks of crisp daikon, lacy shredded cabbage, columns of carrot—all variously mixed with a range of flavorings, including vinegar, curry, chiles, and chives. The vegetables were crunchy and sour and seductive, especially when grasped with wooden chopsticks.

Next, a platter of four hefty pork ribs arrived. The caramelized ribs were sticky-sweet and lent a rich meaty counterbalance to the palate-cleansing vegetables. Ribs and veggies: What could be simpler?

Ah, but therein lies the surprise. These two dishes encompass preparations from four countries: China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Japan was also represented at the table, thanks to the sparkling sake spritzer—an icy blend of sake, rum, basil, and sparkling wine. Now get this: We weren’t enjoying this cultural mash-up in the heart of downtown, but at the Vallagio, a relatively new mixed-use development in Englewood.

Street Kitchen Asian Bistro is unlike any Asian joint you’re likely to find south of Alameda. Whereas many suburban restaurants are large corporate affairs that give diners dishes they can pronounce with ingredients they understand (egg rolls, fried rice), Mary Nguyen, Street Kitchen’s 35-year-old chef-owner, dares to push the rice-paper envelope. Here, Nguyen, whose family hails from Vietnam, takes intensely flavored, budget-friendly dishes sold from street carts throughout Asia and brings them together on one menu, color-coded by country. Red for China; yellow for Malaysia. The menu is not only fun and adventurous, but it’s also educational. Here, you’ll learn that Penang curry is not the Thai dish you always thought it was. It’s Malaysian, and it’s named after an island located on that country’s west coast.

The range of dishes is impressive, as is the fact that Nguyen—who’s also the driving force behind Parallel Seventeen in Denver—refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator. She’s not afraid of fiery heat. She drizzles with rich Japanese aïoli. She douses with curries. And she has a penchant for building dishes by layering one rich flavor after another, as she does with the L-Bomb, an anything-but-shy sushi roll filled with crab, cucumber, and cream cheese, deep-fried in tempura batter, topped with coarsely ground tuna tartare, and set atop a sweat-inducing sauce made from shichimi, a Japanese seven-pepper blend. This dish, like many on the menu, is a modern, labor-intensive interpretation of a traditional classic. And although I appreciate the work and creativity behind it, I found this flavor combination too aggressive.

A more-balanced dish is the Japanese okonomiyaki, a Frisbee-size appetizer in which cabbage, scallions, and pickled ginger have been layered inside a mountain-yam batter, fried to a crispy exterior, and topped with a sweet-tart Japanese Worcestershire and aïoli. What makes okonomiyaki so eye-catching is the top layer of paper-thin fish flakes that flutter like wings as steam is released from below. Check it out, then dig in—this dish, like everything on the Street Kitchen menu, is inexpensive and meant to be shared.

Other sound starters include the roti, triangles of crispy-buttery Malaysian flat bread served with succulent yellow curry, and the crab rangoons, crunchy pyramids filled with a rich blue crab-goat cheese blend and topped with a ginger-pear sauce. Less successful were the soup dumplings, whose thick chewy outer layer overwhelmed the mild pork broth inside.

Street Kitchen has plenty of dishes you’ve seen before, although Nguyen puts her own contemporary spin on them. The Thai vegetarian summer rolls are traditional rice-paper rolls filled with vegetables and vermicelli, and served with a peanut dipping sauce—but Nguyen adds a dose of herby pesto to give the cool rolls an extra flavor jolt. Her Penang curry, a blend of pork, onion, carrots, and snow peas, is sweeter than most Penangs I’ve encountered—but this isn’t a criticism. The coconut milk base is artfully balanced by the heat in the curry. Nguyen’s pad thai, a generous heap of sautéed rice noodles, chicken, bean sprouts, and peanuts, is more densely flavored than your average Thai noodles. However, this is another preparation where she overreaches. Pulling back on the flavoring in the sauté would have allowed the taste of individual ingredients to emerge more fully.

As bold and overtly Asian as the menu is, the atmosphere at Street Kitchen is anything but. In fact, there’s nothing distinctly Far East about the space at all, save for photos of street vendors that line one wall, and an open kitchen designed to mimic the feeling you get watching Shanghai street cooks make dumplings. Otherwise, the large single dining room with open ductwork and wooden tables feels a bit impersonal in—dare I say it—a Tech Center kind of way.

Granted, this lack of energy could have been because most of my visits to Street Kitchen were for dinner, and the south metro dinner crowd has yet to discover Street Kitchen. The one time I did go for lunch, the place was packed, and I’ve heard the noon rush often sees a line out the door.

Service travels the spectrum. One server was overly eager. Another disappeared for long stretches. A third was just right, although we did have to ask for plates to be replenished between courses. You’d think a restaurant built around strong flavors and shared dishes would know to provide clean plates with each course, given that seven-pepper spice does not naturally meld with lime vinaigrette, sweet pear, or yellow curry.

Ultimately, though, Street Kitchen is a bold new restaurant that I hope will become an inspiration to other establishments outside of Denver proper. The decision-makers at big-box restaurants may think the suburbs consist only of diners with limited taste. Happily, Mary Nguyen knows better.