I should be embarrassed when I get visibly giddy at a restaurant, but when I greet a server with the statement, "I'm going to order vegan," and she replies, "Oh, we know what vegan is. No animals, no dairy, no eggs, no honey," well, tears of joy, people, tears of joy.
I couldn't help but ask why the servers and chef at Chaang Thai were so well versed in what is - and is not - vegan. Nine days a year in Thailand, "jay" is observed. The word jay means "vegan food" and comes from Chinese Mahayana Buddhism and the observance of the eight precepts, one of which is to "abstain from being harmful to living beings." The result for us in Colorado Springs? The chef at Chaang Thai knows how to make vegan food with remarkable flavor.
I highly recommend a lunchtime visit with a friend. The lunch specials are priced right ($7.95-$8.95), and the serving sizes are generous (bordering on enormous). It's a great way to sample several dishes. And since the lunch prices are so good, I'm the first to add on and sample an egg roll ($4.95). The golden crisp egg-free wrap bundles together bright orange and white carrots and cabbage prepared just lightly enough to retain a crunch. The crispy tofu ($4.95) is nestled on a bed of cabbage. Each tasting neutral on their own, just a bit of the sauce - bringing sugar and spice to the palate - creates a deeply tangy bite. (I could easily order this as a meal).
Heading back to the lunch specials, the feast begins with soup or salad; we were fortunate to dine on a day when the miso soup was vegan - but don't expect that every time. Do count on being offered a salad free of meat or dairy. The fried rice with Thai basil ($7.95) is already vegan. Tofu is the plant-based protein option, which is included, but on this day I asked for no protein and was immediately offered extra vegetables. The sticky rice boasted bright, colorful green beans, broccoli and carrots and lots of flavor in delicately prepared onions. The drunken noodles ($7.95) with red and green peppers and puffy tofu are thick with savory flavor, Thai comfort food-style. Equally comforting is the coconut milk-based Massaman curry ($8.95). Tender roasted potatoes and onions with lightly fried tofu and crushed peanuts swim in a borderline sweet sauce. All of these dishes can be ordered mild, medium, hot and "Thai hot." A fan of spice - but not the fiery sort - I found medium to deliver in each dish; my dining companion requested a side of "Thai hot" (and a tissue) and was equally pleased.
Vegan sweet endings are hard to come by even at very vegan-friendly restaurants, but here you can find two. The sticky rice with fresh mango ($5.50) is definitely not for the gummy-texture averse, but if you like sushi rice, this syrup version is a lovely heavy balance to the fruit.
Or simply opt for a Thai iced coffee or tea ($2.95) and be sure to request coconut milk for the vegan version. It's dessert in liquid form, sugary from the first sip. In a good way.
Elegantly modern yet casual Chaang Thai is a surprise find, tucked in the rows of businesses and restaurants along North Academy Boulevard.
The friendly service, focus on local and fresh produce and keen understanding of dietary and celebratory food choices make for a marvelous meal. And the essence of the jay philosophy - to cleanse the body and one's karma - is a pretty nice bonus.