Thai Me a River by Eric Bolson

The account you are about to hear is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but the events depicted, to the best of my knowledge, are as closely aligned to what actually happened as Santa Claus is to the birth of Christ. My younger son was visiting during the summer a few years back from the great state of Georgia, home of peach pies and… well, my sons. Sadly, that’s about all there is to entice anyone to that crime ridden hole of a state (isn’t exposition fun?).

To create a memory to which Ralex (cough, not his real name, cough) could cling when he returned to the misery that is the Peach State, we decided to head up to the mountains of Colorful Colorado, drive around all day looking at gorgeously scenic views, and then spend the night in a charming hotel before whiling away the second day hiking around the nearby lake and dilapidated dam. This was a chance for my wife, whom I shall refer to as Raspen (to preserve her anonymity) and her daughter, Relina (this one is totally legit, trust me) to spend some quality time with my son and I. It was an opportunity for our newly melded family to meet, greet, and bond. It was a trip that would become infamous in our family’s lore as we shared adventure, drama, laughter, and pain… mostly pain.

We had decided to stop for the day in the quaint little town of Nederland, Colorado. A mountain village that cleverly enticed us in with its quiet lake, interesting old town atmosphere, and a mysterious billboard stating that it was home of the frozen dead guy festival. Little did we know that we would discover exactly how the guy got so dead!

I was already formulating a plan for dinner after spotting a Thai restaurant on the way into town. You see, for three years I had been on a personal quest ever since I was introduced to Pad Thai at a small restaurant in Longmont called the Thai Kitchen. Whenever I would go there, I always ordered the same thing, “beef Pad Thai, extra egg, extra spicy.” In my opinion this is still the best place in Colorado for savory Pad Thai. Unfortunately, I soon learned that although there are many versions of traditional Pad Thai, sweet is, by far, much more common than savory (especially in America). After consistently finding nothing but a string of syrupy messes in Thai eateries around the state, I became mildly obsessed with finding another whose signature dish did not include the words “HIGH FRUCTOSE” in its ingredient list. I would soon learn that sometimes you really do get what you ask for.

The interior of the Ubon cuisine Thai restaurant (which, if memory serves, translates to “house of pain” in Swahili) was somewhat dimly lit, with a western style décor overlaid with faux Asian accents to give it that authentic ‘this place used to be a sizzler’ look. Sliding into the bench seats we let the dust from their authentic dirt parking lot settle as we hungrily perused the hermetically sealed menus. My eyes lit up when I noticed that they did indeed offer that personal grail for which I searched, Beef Pad Thai.

Having previously suffered defeat in my culinary quest, I cannily queried the waitress as to the sugar content of their beef Pad Thai. Upon being assured that it was not too sweet I rattled off my usual, “Beef Pad Thai, extra egg, extra spicy.” By the end of those seven fateful words she was nodding and scribbling industriously, but then she stopped, looked me dead in the eye and without missing a beat asked how spicy I wanted the dish. She clarified with, “Do you want hot or Thai Hot?”

Previous experience had taught me that Thai restaurateurs consider Americans to be delicate little snowflakes when it comes to actual spicy food. Luckily, I wasn’t just another snowflake, like any red-blooded Coloradan, I ate Tabasco on my Wheaties and spread Sriracha on my toast every morning. And so, as a lamb led to slaughter, I replied, “Oh definitely Thai Hot!” Then my son, whom I suspect wanted to prove that his chest was just as hairy as his father’s (and his brain just as damaged), immediately chimed in with, “I’ll have the same.” My daughter opted for the Chicken Pad Thai but elected not to subject herself to the mysteries of, “Thai Hot.”

Now as any good sadist will tell you, one cannot just jump straight into torturing their victims. One must observe the traditions and nuances to make the event truly memorable for all parties. Though styles may vary, the basics have remained the same throughout history. First you let your intended prey sit and stew, regretting every decision in their lives that led up to this fateful moment. Then, you bring the pain like the flaming hand of God. Then comes squealing in agony, rinse, repeat. The Spanish inquisition had hot pokers, the Crusades had the iron maiden, Guantanamo has waterboarding, but all observe this critical prelude to torment. I call it the quiet before the storm.

In our naiveté, we cheated our torturers as we merely sat and spoke idly to pass the time. I may have taken this opportunity to relay my questly obsession for the perfect Pad Thai to my son. Meanwhile, as the chef prepared to forge our dinners in the fires of mount doom, aka the kitchen, the storm clouds gathered, swirling and skirling in a series of low pressure fronts between that dark fount of despair and our innocent table. The distant echo of thunder and the sharp smell of ozone should have been enough to foreshadow the impending doom but instead, we obliviously treated this portal to some pocket dimension in hell like any other quaint mountain-town eatery. A chill leisurely wending its way up our spines and the feeling of someone walking across our graves, to serve Pad Thai, were the final omens as the waitress arrived with our dinners. We said our prayers, or last rites depending on your perspective, and I immediately grabbed my fork, twirled up a big ol’ man sized bundle of noodles, and crammed them in my mouth.

In retrospect, it all seems obvious, but in the heat of battle all that you see is a series of still images as each horrific moment is indelibly etched into memory. The orange noodles crusted with enough crushed red chili peppers to kill a baby seal did not tip me off to the fact that I was about as prepared to tackle Thai Hot as the aforementioned seal is for an Inuit club. The savory flavor of the sauce, and the scratchy sensation of a ton of pepper seeds, had just a split second to register before the pain train came roaring around the corner to sandblast the interior of my face-hole like a mafia henchman removing evidence from a crime scene.

Words cannot capture Thai Hot, not and be able to do the experience any sort of justice. It was like a thousand suns burning my esophagus as my life briefly flashed before my pain dazzled eyes. Water streamed from my eyes and nose (hell, probably even from my ears) as my sinuses flushed themselves in shocked dismay. Then followed that transcendent moment, as my teeth came down on that first mouthful at full force… and bounced right back out again.

The evil kitchen sadist had not only flavored each bowl with a heapin’ handful of seedy pepper flakes, but that crafty old alchemist had also managed to undercook the rice noodles so (un?) thoroughly that I was now biting into a mouthful of white hot rubber bands. Again and again I experienced the futility of trying to pierce the adamantine hide of Ubon’s Pad Thai noodles. I tried shearing with brute force… nothing. I tried sawing with the cutting edge of my front teeth… bupkis. All while dying figuratively from the unrelenting heat and literally from having my airway blocked with a solid mass of rubber band noodles (Pad Thai in Swahili literally, almost (not really), translates to: Rubber Band Noodles of Death).

At this point, stray thoughts meandered through my oxygen starved brain; the waitress and the chef of death were foreign national serial killers who’s M.O. was to take out stupid white people too dumb to spit out the spice grenades causing their airways to swell shut even as they are simultaneously plugged with pepper flecked bands of steel. I could almost see the pile of dead tourist being loaded into nondescript trucks behind the restaurant, each with identical stupid looks on faces whose mouths still trailed a cluster of inedible orange noodles like the tassels on a little girl’s tricycle.

The absurdity of the moment truly set in when I looked up and beheld two of my three children trying to Pac Man their way through their bowls of Goodyear noodles. My daughter, Relina was quietly alternating between ineffectual chews and gasps for sweet, sweet oxygen. My son Ralex, was taking a more strategic approach. Face a shade of red reminiscent of sunrise and eyes streaming a steady trickle of Thai Hot joy, he was whipping his head back and forth to repeatedly bounce his incisors off those strips of steel belted goodness. He wasn’t just biting though; he would throw his entire head into each attempted mastication in order to maximize the force brought to bear on his incisors. Not that it did him any good, the poor deluded son of a bitch.

After seeing this display of ineffective gumption, the thought of how great telling this story was going to be was the proverbial final straw. To the pain, tears, and gasps I added giggles and guffaws. Soon we were all wheezing out pained laughter like red-faced, crying, choking mad-men. Ralex and I laughing through our tears, Relina giggling and gasping as all three of us belatedly started gulping the recycled-fire-hose-noodles down one at a time. Finally, there was my lovely wife Raspen, who should be in the Guinness book of world records as Colorado’s slowest eater, quietly laughing at our shared misery and finishing her chicken with cashews long before we had snorted our way through even half of the most memorable meal any of us had ever eaten.

 

Bio: I have been a student at Aims Community College off and on since 1994. I have always wanted to be a writer and now that my children have grown I am free to follow that path to whatever adventure lies at its end.