The First Thai Restaurant In The U.S. Was In Denver — Here’s An Original Recipe

May 7, 2021
Holly Arnold Kinney's copy of "Lily’s Cookbook,” a collection of the restaurant’s most popular recipes. The book had a run-in with Kinney's dog.Holly Arnold Kinney's copy of "Lily’s Cookbook,” a collection of the restaurant’s most popular recipes. The book had a run-in with Kinney's dog.Ryan Warner/CPR News
Holly Arnold Kinney's copy of "Lily’s Cookbook,” a collection of the restaurant’s most popular recipes. The book had a run-in with Kinney's dog.

Chada Thai is widely recognized as the first Thai restaurant in the United States. It opened in Denver in the early 1960s — despite the city’s longtime cowtown image. The restaurant’s late founder, Lily Chittivej, moved to town from Thailand after visiting her husband here in 1960. He was a doctor.

“I want my children to have a good education in a civilized country,” she wrote in “Lily’s Cookbook,” a collection of the restaurant’s most popular recipes. “There is no room for all smart students in Thailand ... Here the children have a chance.”

The cookbook is the latest selection in “The Kitchen Shelf,” the vintage cookbook series from Colorado Matters. A copy belongs to Holly Arnold Kinney — a Colorado restaurateur herself. She owns The Fort in Morrison, which specializes in foods of the Old West.

Kinney has a vast collection of cookbooks in her basement library — including Lily Chittivej’s. But she is more deeply connected to Chada Thai than that. Kinney’s father, the renowned food historian and critic Sam Arnold, was very close to Chittivej. As a kid, Kinney remembers visiting the original Chada at 408 E. 20th Ave.

(A restaurant of the same name is still in business today — run by a different family.)

Kinney has vivid memories of the first location. “The most fun thing was you'd walk in the restaurant and she'd have all these amazing decorations and costumes of Thai dancers hanging on the wall,” Kinney remembers. “I was fascinated with the brass long fingernails that the Thai dancers use to put on their hands to accentuate their hand movements and the crown of jewels that they would wear when they’d dance.”

The memory Kinney has lined up on the day we visited her home kitchen, however, was taste-based. She prepared “Noodles With Crab Curry” from “Lily’s Cookbook.” “I haven’t had it really since I was a little girl at Lilly’s restaurant,” she says.

While the recipe gives you the option of fresh crab or canned, Kinney went all-out and bought fresh Dungeness crab.

Ryan Warner/CPR News
Holly Arnold Kinney samples some of “Noodles With Crab Curry” from “Lily’s Cookbook.”

“Lily always used fresh crab,” she says. “This is what makes it really good.”

According to the cookbook, the dish was a favorite at Chada Thai Restaurant: “Many customers love this dish for lunch. It is a real Thai dish because of its curry taste (flavor).”

Kinney, who used fettuccine in her version, explains that at “Chadha Thai in the 1960s, they didn't have many choices of Thai noodles and Lilly thought spaghetti and linguini was a good noodle from the Italian communities here. And it was familiar to many Americans. So she always used spaghetti or linguine in her recipes.”

Kinney sits down at her table and twists her fork in the hearty noodle dish — careful to spear some crab. Her reaction? Simply: “Mmmmmmmmmm.”

But her moment of gustatory nostalgia comes with a pang of sorrow. Kinney had to make this recipe from a photocopy of the original cookbook. She’d brought the original up from her basement and placed it on the kitchen counter. While she was out buying ingredients, her Golden Retriever/Cattle Dog mix Frenchie snagged it and shredded it. Kinney returned home, saw that the cookbook had itself become a meal, and was beside herself.

“It was such a grieving moment for me.”

So she went for a walk, ran into a neighbor, and shared her loss. The neighbor’s response left Kinney dumbstruck.

“She said, ‘you know, I have a copy of that book at home! I'll get it. It's a Xerox copy.’”

It’s proof, says Kinney, of how popular Lily Chittivej’s dishes were among longtime Denverites.


Ryan Warner/CPR News
“Noodles With Crab Curry” from “Lily’s Cookbook.”

Noodles With Crab Curry

Ingredients

  • ½ lb king crab or an 8-oz can cooked crab
  • Spaghetti noodles for two people
  • 1 cup bean sprouts
  • 2 slices eggplant
  • 1 medium green or yellow squash
  • About eight green beans
  • ¼ cup parsley
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs

Preparation

Cook noodles according to directions. Heat bean sprouts and crab and spread on top of noodles. Pour the curry sauce on the noodles and decorate with parsley and sliced hard-boiled egg.

Dip sliced eggplant, squash, green beans in batter (½ cup water, ½ cup flour, 1 egg) and fry. Set on the side of the serving plate. Serves 2 people.

Curry Sauce

  • 1 cup mung beans or yellow beans
  • 2 cups milk or coconut milk
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 tbsp Mexican chile powder
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp corn oil

Preparation

For sauce, boil beans till they turn soft. Drain the beans and keep the water. Mix beans with coconut milk. Add sugar, salt, and lemon juice. Mix together in a blender. Pour in the pot and set on the stove. Boil for two minutes until bubbly, then set aside. Slice onion to thin pieces and brown in skillet with 1tsp corn oil. Add Mexican chile powder. Stir together for 1 minute; then add to bean mixture.


For our series "The Kitchen Shelf," CPR News wants to know about other local Colorado cookbooks and we want your help.

Whether your cookbook is collecting dust on a shelf or is a butter-stained countertop workhorse, take a picture of the cover and tweet @cprwarner or email it to news@cpr.org.

We’d love to share more of these family recipes and the stories behind them.

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