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Pad Thai Woonsen features a tangle of glass noodles with traditional toppings.

On its surface, 3-month-old Zesty Thai appears approachable, American-palate-friendly and familiar. It would be difficult to differentiate it from other spots in town at a passing glance or even after a pleasant plate of curry or noodles.

All the standard dishes are present and perfectly serviceable, based on our sampling of an item from each menu category. Had chef/owner Ingrid Fejeran not ducked out of her kitchen toward the end of our meal to introduce herself (prompting me to fire off my usual litany of questions for background), we would have left with no super-convincing reason to venture this far from our home base for Thai food, especially when plenty of other fine options serve closer to us.

It’s actually what we didn’t have — only got a teaser taste of — that has me compelled to return; a promissory note of sorts, taken on faith, or perhaps more of an invite for adventure. Why? Because the five dog-eared sheets of menu paper in front of me are just a starting point, the staples that customers expect. Fejeran, explaining why she leaves the kitchen regularly to touch tables, says she wants to develop personal relationships to earn repeat customers, keeping their attention with variety and gaining word-of-mouth cred. She tells us she’ll happily customize food orders, and surprising for this common strip-mall location, she says she wants to target three- to five-course chef’s tables, like in a fine-dining setting, with more rare and exotic meal preparations. (A liquor license should come in summer 2022 to bolster those.)

To make sense of this model, it helps to know she’s coming off 14 years at The Broadmoor (including back-of-the-house work and front-of-the-house service, mainly between the central kitchen and the Lake Terrace Dining Room). During that period, she was also working a full-time tech job in database processing; she has a computer information systems degree. She also graduated from Bangkok’s International Hotel and Tourism Industry Management School, specializing in a culinary degree. “I’m trained in East and West styles,” she says. “I’m grabbing from each and I can cook across both. My slogan is ‘authentic flavoring with a modern twist.’”

While her husband, who helps her out waiting tables when not working his school counseling day job, has Guamanian heritage, Ingrid has both Chinese and Thai ancestry from her parents. Growing up in Thailand, she began cooking at age 8, taught Chinese cuisine by her dad and auntie, and Thai by her mom. She started by learning to make curry paste from scratch. The family operated a food stall in Kalasin, in the country’s northeast region. Later, as an adult, she traveled widely on food-focused holidays with her “sister,” technically a cousin, she clarifies. Local Thai fans will know that person as Suwanna Meyer, owner of Chaang Thai and Elephant Thai.

Another important aspect to note about Zesty Thai, Fejeran says, is she specifically caters to gluten-free, allergen-sensitive and vegan diners: All her base sauces start vegan and can be built up for omnivores from there; there’s separate fryers in the kitchen and color-coded cutting boards; she doesn’t use MSG or add excessive sodium. “I buy all my vegetables fresh. I make my stocks from veggie trimmings, with peppercorns, bay leaves, celery and onion — French techniques. It’s basic food, veggie-enhanced. You can pronounce all the ingredients. I like things simple, so I can play with textures and flavors.”

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Pineapple red curry pops with basil and a sweet edge.

As for our meal order, before we learned all of this, we started with the essential simple Asian favorite: crab cheese wontons. Thick dough wrappers are somewhat chewier than crisp, absorbing much of the cream cheese and ginger-seasoned (real) crab meat’s richness. For the sweet-and-sour dip, it’s thankfully not the sticky, synthetic-tasting, ubiquitous stuff, but a housemade sauce that gets its crimson color from cranberry juice.

We next try four main plates. The basil fried rice flecked with a veggie array and our choice of a combination of proteins bears big, toasty wok hay and huge herbaceous flavor. We double down and achieve that again with an eggplant basil stir-fry, ordered vegetarian with another snappy, fibrous, colorful vegetable array and additional notes of garlic plus soft mushrooms that closely resemble the texture of the starring nightshade. Pineapple red curry with more basil essence and bell peppers in a soupy coconut milk broth, which we order medium-hot, with chicken, delivers both fruity sweetness and a lovely floral aroma.

Fejeran does buy her basic green, yellow and red curries to build dishes up from — for both time and cost reasons. But she makes special curries with more expensive ingredients for the chef’s tables and custom orders by request. She also makes a fresh chile paste each morning (that she says won’t hold past a day for optimal flavor) that satisfies requests for Thai-hot dishes. Not in a particular hot-head mood, I try it sparingly on the side with my Pad Thai Woonsen ordered with shrimp. That dish brings all the ingredients of typical, universally popular Pad Thai into a tangle of thin glass noodles (versus rice noodles) that don’t separate easily from one another using chopsticks or fork. Bites with the chile paste nearly make me sweat.

We drink warming raspberry-hibiscus and turmeric-ashwagandha hot teas and suck down some Thai iced tea that’s as sweet as you find it elsewhere but a little more dynamic in flavor, made with a blend of three commercial Thai tea bags explains Fejeran, adding she also sweetens with a mix of white and brown sugars. We also try a new-to-us Dalgona Coffee, created in Asia and popularized during the pandemic across social media (Fejeran saw it on TikTok) when bored people at home apparently thought blending their coffee would help cheer them up or alleviate doom or whatever. It’s made by whipping equal parts hot water, sugar and freeze-dried instant coffee powder (the finer the grain the better, she says) into a velvety froth that’s put over the top of iced milk (plus half-and-half here), where it slowly and somewhat hypnotically bleeds dark lines down into the pure whiteness. It’s hella sweet and delightful even though I try to be good and resist the sugar, pushing the glass away then caving and grabbing it back. Ah addiction: You’re an asshole. 

Along that same line of broken willpower, we destroy a plate of wonton-wrapped fried bananas garnished with toasted sesame seeds and a tacky sauce made with honey, caramel and condensed milk. By now I’ve introduced myself (having long been mutually acquainted with Fejeran’s “sister” Suwanna), so Fejeran disappears and reappears with a comped off-menu dessert we didn’t request but politely (reluctantly) accept. It’s a traditional dish, she tells us, which floats chunks of kabocha squash and purple potatoes in a coconut milk bath sweetened by palm sugar plus honey (a personal touch) and garnished again with sesame seeds. It makes for a fun savory-sweet bite, wherein the squash and potatoes are starchy enough to play both sides once dunked in the broth.

We’re beyond satiated. We continue to chat with Fejeran as she points out the delicately lined bamboo tables she insisted on for the space — yes, they’re beautiful and eye-catching. Overhead thatched bamboo fiber pendants diffuse the warm lighting stylishly. She says a neon sign’s finally coming in late January to replace the temporary banner out front (which yes, made it hard to spot the place at night). She’ll also fill out the wide patio space with furniture come warmer weather.

She returns to the topic of the chef’s tables, noting a unique take on Pad Kra Pao (another basil-forward item) she makes with bison instead of beef. She says Tuesdays through Thursdays are preferred for the special meals, as weekends are busier, and calling ahead with notice is necessary so she can shop accordingly. 

Before we can depart, she disappears and reappears once again, this time with a to-go box with a sample of a Thai dish I hadn’t tried before, something that again she says is exemplary of the kind of item she might include in a chef’s choice prix fixe (which she currently quotes at around $120 per couple for five courses). Inside is Kua Kling, a Southern Thai-style red curry that she warns is definitely Thai-hot. It’s a from-scratch house curry that importantly relies on whole kaffir limes (not more common leaves) for their potent zest. Those aren’t always easy to procure, she says, bringing out a few for us to see and smell. The curry otherwise includes shrimp paste for sourness, dried Thai bird chiles for the heat, and galangal for the astringent bite. She’s sautéed a pan of ground beef with the curry, suggesting we make rice to eat it with, using lettuce leaves and cucumber slices to cool our mouths when the heat builds up too much.

The next evening I comply with her instructions and reheat the Kua Kling, which has had more time to infuse the seasonings into the meat, the way certain dishes are even better on day two. As promised, it’s somewhat of a tongue scorcher, but hugely flavorful with its citric-chile acid-spice profile. I’m reminded a bit of Thai larb because of the ground meat texture, but without the added herbs and fixings that salad contains. It’s a more memorable and vivid taste experience. As intended, it hooks me, making me wonder just what Fejeran will come up with when I make it back around for a personal chef’s table on my own time. 

My travel in Thailand years ago was time- and budget-limited to just a couple regions, such that I know there’s so much I missed and have yet to try — things that won’t be found on the basic Thai menu here or elsewhere. It’s that notion of being able to explore and encounter something new at Zesty Thai that will lure me back. 

Food & Drink Editor

Matthew Schniper is the Food and Drink Editor at the Colorado Springs Indy. He began freelancing with the Indy in mid-2004 and joined full-time in early 2006, contributing arts, food, environmental and feature writing.

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