Food Matters: Bangkok in Basalt
IF YOU GO…
Mod’s Thai House
132 Midland Ave. Basalt
Though Chef Manny Diaz has left the kitchen at Jimmy’s: An American Restaurant after a hearty run, he left his mark. As did his wife, Napaporn “Mod” Chansri, Bangkok-born owner of Lemongrass Thai Catering in Aspen and the chef who really started Jimmy’s beloved offseason Thai Week seven years ago. Chansri catered a winter holiday luncheon for staff, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It started as Thai Tuesdays, then evolved into Thai Week, then a whole month,” Diaz says, adding that a few items ended up on Jimmy’s regular menu. “Now we have a Thai restaurant!”
The couple opened Mod’s Thai House off Midland Avenue in Basalt at the tail end of April, and it’s been smooth sailing since. The casual sit-down restaurant showcases food that is totally Thai, based off recipes Chansri grew up with in Thailand.
“My wife’s father is from the South, where food tends to be more spicy; her mother is from the North — more pickles and acidity, not too spicy,” Diaz shares. “This food has influence from both (places), grounded from (Chansri’s) life in Bangkok, where her parents met and live.”
That includes a cool combination of recognizable Thai Week staples, such as pad Thai, chicken satay, fresh spring rolls with shrimp and tom yum soup.
“We tried to skip it once or twice and people kept asking about it,” Diaz recalls of the latter during his Jimmy’s days. The mouth-warming coconut-milk broth is fragrant with lemongrass and slightly sour with lime juice. Restaurateur Jimmy Yeager’s personal favorite, chicken khao soi noodles (piquant red curry with bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, fried shallots and lime wedge), is available, too, along with Diaz’s top choice, Thai Chicken Basil, prepared with green beans and carrots in hot soy-oyster sauce and topped with a fried egg. No disrespect to crave-worthy stir-fried drunken noodles and three kinds of curry, of course.
Other traditional Thai preparations may be new for some diners: Mieng tuna (shown on opposite page) is a fresh take on tartare, made with diced ahi, fresh ginger and shallot, toasted coconut and juicy grapefruit served on individual lettuce leaves and drizzled with tangy tamarind sauce. Pork-and-tomato “chili dip” is more like a fiery, savory paste served on cucumber slices with lotus-root chips.
Diaz, a Mexico native, recalls his curious introduction to the cuisine.
“Laarb pork is warm ground pork seasoned with herbs — cilantro, scallion — but also mint. Mint with warm pork? I was like whaaaat? And it’s delicious! It has this sharp flavor from the lime juice and then chiles, shallot. It was like a roller coaster.”
Texture is another key ingredient in Chansri’s dishes at Mod’s Thai House. During a recent visit, I taste something delectably crunchy in the laarb pork, but can’t place it. “Toasted rice,” Diaz quips. Similarly, peanut sauce for the chicken satay is blended from a base of Massaman curry and plenty of crushed peanuts (no jarred Skippy here).
Ultra-crispy duck spring rolls have already become the must-order signature app at Mod’s. “Everybody needs this,” Chansri declares with a knowing grin, as she places an order on a neighboring table. The long, hand-rolled batons arrive to the table in dramatic yet simple presentation: sticking up vertically from a glass carafe (shown opposite page).
The rolls are stuffed with leg and thigh meat pulled from whole roasted duck; the breast is reserved for red curry with cherry tomato, bamboo, pineapple and Thai basil. It’s a manageable menu, and the open kitchen layout allows for easy interaction between chefs and guests — something Diaz says he missed throughout most of his career.
Mod’s Thai House represents a longtime dream realized for the duo as well as the first time in over a decade that they’re sharing a kitchen. Diaz was the sous chef at the Snowmass Club some 15 years ago; Chansri worked front of house there as part of an Aspen Skiing Co. internship straight out of the Bangkok hospitality management industry. Now they’ve been married eight years, during which time he manned the Jimmy’s kitchen as executive chef and she ran Lemongrass Catering. Often Diaz would work until midnight; Chansri, at one point an assistant manager on the breakfast shift at Home Team BBQ, rose early.
“There would be days when we wouldn’t talk,” Diaz says, about that ships-in-the-night stint. Not anymore. The couple’s 8-year-old son, Patrick, (“Pato,” which happens to mean “duck” in Spanish), is thrilled to walk to Mod’s daily after school. Clearly, it’s a family operation.
As luck would have it, Diaz discovered the property via Roaring Fork Swap one Saturday night and toured the former gas station space, last a retail boutique, the following afternoon. That Mod’s Thai House materialized so quickly during an eight-week buildout is evidence of how natural, and perhaps needed, Thai food feels here in Basalt. Midland Avenue’s other longtime residents, including The Brick Pony, Heather’s Savory Pies, Café Bernard and Tempranillo each have carved a niche.
“We wanted to keep Thai, Thai,” Diaz explains. “People sometimes come in and ask if we have edamame…well, no, it’s Japanese. We don’t have kimchi. There’s no fusion. This is Thai.”
As such, Mod’s culinary philosophy combines many elements in a single dish that together represent the Thai principle of “yum”: a bit sweet, sort of sour, and just salty enough. “Thai people don’t even use much salt — they use fish sauce,” Diaz notes, still sounding somewhat in awe. “That gives saltiness and a funky, umami flavor on the back. You don’t know what it is, but you enjoy it.”
Diaz is well-versed in the elements of surprise in Thai cuisine, something he and Chansri hope to share with visitors.
“I lived in Puebla the last seven years of my life in Mexico, so I have more of a sweet palate,” Diaz says. “Like mole, which has chocolate. I got used to spicy food in last 10 years or more living with (Chansri).”
The chefs invite folks who may be unfamiliar with the food to ask questions and try slow-simmered sauces and curries before placing a final order — maybe not for the same ’ol pad Thai this time.
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Painter Annie Decamp met the Denver-based artist Michael Dowling at a show a few years ago, and asked if he would mentor her.