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The Nam of the Game

If you've survived the fall of Saigon and fled your native country, how frightening can it be to start a restaurant?

Very, it turns out.
"It has been scary," says Van Vo, who opened Tay Do seven months ago. "I admit that I know very little about cooking, but I know what good food tastes like. My husband, who works for King Soopers, he comes in and cleans the kitchen and does a lot of things, but I rely on my two cooks from Vietnam and my management experience to make it work. I love people, so I try to make them happy."

Her food does. Believe me, it does. So does the attention that Vo lavishes on her customers. Now she just needs more of them.

Vo landed in the U.S. in 1975. After living in Minnesota for two years, she moved to Denver to manage a string of 7-Elevens. But then a friend convinced her that buying a dying Chinese restaurant and converting it to a Vietnamese eatery would be a good idea. Vo agreed.

The space is a hole in a mall set back from the road behind a Pizza Hut at the corner of Iliff and Chambers. Vo kept the former tenant's elaborate decorations, including four enormous bas-relief murals depicting scenes of China, carved in wood and overlaid with a coppery substance, that dominate the refined main dining room. Two smaller rooms flank the kitchen, each topped by a row of wooden shingles that make them look like private, and classy, little huts. Vo runs Tay Do with a little help from her husband, Michael Walden, and a lot of help from her Vietnamese cooks.

Some of the dishes coming out of Tay Do's kitchen are the best versions of Vietnamese standards I've ever had. The soft-shell crab appetizer ($9.95) is now my all-time favorite incarnation--in Denver or anywhere. Two good-sized crabs had been dressed in a suit of tempura batter before being fried in a high-quality oil; the key to their success was the evenness of the coating and the accuracy of the frying, which resulted in a thin, crunchy outer shell still soft enough to mesh with the tender crab meat at every bite. I eschewed the usual accompaniments of (very fresh) lettuce, bean sprouts and mint, because I didn't want anything to take away from the crab, although I did occasionally dunk pieces into the wonderfully mellow and slightly sweet nuoc cham.

That sauce was also an ideal accessory for the spring rolls ($2.95 for two), bundles of rice paper wrapped tightly around the perfect proportions of shrimp, barbecued pork, vermicelli and cilantro. Where many Vietnamese eateries fall short, I think, is in the wrapping department: If the wrap isn't very secure, the roll quickly falls apart. These stayed intact until the very last, delicious bite. Our third appetizer, the grilled greenlip mussels ($8.95), was also first-rate. The huge, slightly chewy bivalves had been drenched in a garlic-heavy butter sauce whose richness was cut, slightly, by the accompanying lemon-tinged salt-and-pepper sauce.

France's influence on Vietnamese cooking was apparent in that butter sauce, as it was in many of Tay Do's dishes. The ga xao ca ri ($7.50) featured pieces of chicken that had been beaten until no fibers were left intact--a treatment that made for incredibly tender meat, so soft it hardly required chewing. Covering it was a slightly spicy curry sauce, with a French accent and a distinctive "brown" flavor--as though a beef base had been used--that soaked into every crevice of the chicken. Although the thickened sauce also covered the vegetables that had been stir-fried with the chicken, the assorted veggies were so fresh that their clean tastes showed through. An order of muc rang muoi ($9.95) brought squid that had been deep-fried in strips and then coated in more of that salt-and-pepper sauce, thickened here and sporting a hint of fire and a sweet barbecue quality. This dish was so addictive that I kept picking at it long after the richness became almost unbearable; finally I surrendered, took the leftovers home and had them for breakfast the next day.

But that wasn't enough to satisfy my craving for Tay Do's food, so I returned for a hefty takeout order. Although I couldn't resist another round of the soft-shell crab, this time I also tried the Vietnamese egg rolls ($5.95): generously sized, crispy golden rolls filled with seasoned pork and shrimp. While the heo xao xa ot ($7.50), bits of pork wallowing with vegetables in a plush lemongrass sauce, was fine, I almost swooned over the superb ca chien mam gung ($8.95), a huge catfish fillet that had been deep-fried in a thin batter and came with a heavenly ginger-infused nuoc cham.

Tay Do's menu is not elaborate: Many of the dishes offer the same preparations with different meats, such as beef in the lemongrass sauce I'd encountered with the pork, or shrimp curry. But as Vo says, "I know what my chefs do well, so why try to do too much and get in trouble?"

Good question. If Tay Do keeps turning out food this good--and more people hear of the place--Vo should have no trouble at all with her restaurant.

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