For (some) born and bred Southeast Asians who travel to the US, life can be extremely difficult when it comes to food. Rice is not a staple here, so for people who are accustomed to the notion of “I must have at least one meal with rice every day”, it can get depressing very quickly. And even if you can find Asian restaurants, most of them serve heavily localized dishes and the flavors will make you shed miserable tears.
The few times I have traveled to the US, it has always been with some perpetual rice eaters. To make matters worse, we were staying in Loveland, a small town in Colorado where the Asian population is almost non-existent. On my first trip, I spent a lot of time searching Google for decent Asian food in Loveland and Fort Collins. It was for the sake of the colleague, if it was up to me, I couldn’t care less about the lack of rice and Asian food.
I found a few that had great reviews. We went and tried them all, and left disappointed, every single time. I learned that just because Americans think an Asian restaurant is great, doesn’t mean that it is great for a true Asian. Most of the time, the opposite would be true.
It was in the same manner that I found this restaurant in Denver, the capital city of Colorado, 60 miles south of Loveland. We were headed for the premium outlets at Castle Rock which is further south, so it made sense to come and check this place out.
Jaya Asian Grill is located in the Boulevard Center, South Colorado Boulevard, just off exit 204 along the I-25. The slogan on their entrance is wrong. This is not a South Asian cuisine restaurant. This is a restaurant for Southeast Asian cuisine. Singaporean/Malaysian/Thai/Cantonese to be exact.
From the outside, it looked like a dodgy bar, and we entered with trepidation. It didn’t help when we descended a short flight of stairs and saw this.
Doesn’t look like your typical Asian restaurant setup, does it? Seriously, we were expecting the worst. After all, it had been 5 disappointments out of 5 visits to so-called “great authentic Asian restaurant in Colorado”.
We were half excited and half amused when we saw the menu. Half excited because instead of General Tso Chicken or Moo Goo Gai Pan, we find familiar dish names. Kangkung Sambal Belacan, Sayur Lemak and Gailan are items that you can easily find in the menus of a typical Malay restaurant..
Half amused because of the strange spellings on the two tofu dishes. You know, tofu is spelt as Tauhu. Tahu, on the other hand, means know. Tahu Malacca means Know Malacca. 😀 😀
If you want to see their entire menu, click here. Yes, they do have a website.
When we waitress approached us, she was surprised that we weren’t… white. When I told her that we are Malaysians, she was surprised and asked me: “你识唔识广东话啊? (Do you speak Cantonese?)”. When I replied in the affirmative, I learnt that she is Vietnamese and that the owner is from Hong Kong. Cool..
Happily, we ordered away. At that point of time, I remember feeling anxiously optimistic. I mean, if they can get the menu almost right, surely the food would not be too bad, right?
The soup came first.
My verdict on the soup? Tom Yum my ass! This ain’t tom yum! This is a bloody sweet and sour soup! Bloody hell!
If my expectations was slightly raised when ordering, it was effectively extinguished by the time I had my first spoonful of the soup. We began to prepare ourselves mentally for horribly sweet and unauthentic Asian food.
Then the food arrived, and we got Surprise #2. There were 2 of us, so we ordered 2 fried rice dishes, just like what we would do back in Malaysia. We forgot that we were in America. We forgot that we would be getting American portions!
I am not sure if it was because we held zero expectations, both the fried rice dishes actually tasted pretty good! I mean, not like better than in Malaysia, but at least they tasted authentic! Especially the salted fish fried rice, there is a very clear hint of salt fish in each spoonful of rice. After almost 2 weeks of having steaks and burgers, it felt great to taste familiar food!
We ordered two dishes to go with the fried rice.
Again, the kangkung belacan caught us by surprise. A good surprise. There was a very strong belacan flavor to the water spinach. It almost felt as good as the ones we have in Penang! Excellent!
The menu says that this is an Indonesian fried chicken dish. I wouldn’t know if it is authentically Indonesian, but it as fried chicken goes, it was properly delicious! Even as I am sitting here now, writing this that happened more than 4 years ago, I can still remember the crispiness of the skin and the tenderness of the meat. And the chili dip.. it really did pack a punch. I can safely declare that it can match any of the chili sauce we have over here!
My verdict? Dodgy looking front, confidence breaking setup, farcical soup, but the rest of the food are properly authentic and delicious enough. And the owner and waitress are Cantonese speaking people. If it is authentic Southeast Asian food you seek, Jaya Asian Grill is (one of) your best bet in Denver, and possibly the whole of Colorado.
I am an authentic Southeast Asian, and I have tried about 30 Asian restaurants in Colorado, so I think I am quite qualified to make such a sweeping declaration.
Just make sure that you do not forget that you are in America and the food portions are American portions. Just because the menu has authentic Southeast Asian dish names, doesn’t mean that you have been miraculously teleported back to Malaysia.
Otherwise you will end up like this by the end of your meal..
We didn’t even finish the food. We packed half the rice and half the chicken to go..
But I was mighty glad for uncovering an Asian restaurant serving authentic fare. In fact, this Jaya Asian Grill remains one of my favorite place to grab a taste of home in the US.