By Jamie Swinnerton
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By Cafe Society
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Since the word "pho" can mean "your own bowl" in Vietnamese, you'd think that a restaurant named Pho 79 was prepared to bowl you over with 79 different soup possibilities.
In fact, Pho 79 misses by about fifty -- but what it does offer is more than enough for me.
"The owners named it that because they liked the way it sounded," one employee explains. "It really doesn't mean anything. But it sounds good, don't you think?" More important than a good-sounding name, though, is good-tasting pho -- and Pho 79 has that and more.
781 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
Small pho: $3.75
Medium pho: $4.50
Large pho: $4.95
Iced coffee: $1.95
Soda lemonade: $1.50
Fruit shake: $1.95
2200 West Alameda Avenue, 303-936-9696
Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Small pho: $3.95
Large pho: $4.50
Extra-large pho: $5.25
Soda lemonade: $1.95
Fruit shake: $2.50
Chicken/egg roll rice noodle bowl: $5.95
Bun bo Hue: $5.45
For the last five years, this pho house has been stirring the pot in a small plaza space previously occupied by both Saigon Inn and Co-Do. The decor is sparse but pleasant: Retaining Co-Do's 3-D cutouts of the bridge over the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam, Pho 79 added some plastic plants and wall murals -- one painted to look like blue sky with floating clouds -- that give the room a courtyard feel.
The menu is just as sparse: fruit shakes, Vietnamese coffee and pho -- about two dozen options that come in big, bigger and biggest portions and are priced accordingly, regardless of what's inside the bowls. (The big -- often called "small" or "regular" -- is large enough to feed a very hungry person.) Each bowl is accompanied by a paper sleeve that contains a soup spoon and a pair of chopsticks, along with garnishes of fresh bean sprouts, lemon wedges, jalapeño slices, Asian basil, Vietnamese mint and leaves of something often referred to as "saw herb" or "saw lettuce," a mildly bitter green that's often too jagged around the edges to eat raw. All of these items -- along with the standard table condiments of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, Sriracha hot chile sauce, salt and pepper -- can be added to your soup as you see fit.
But first, taste the pho (and remember to pronounce it "fuh"). This soothing elixir got its start as a Vietnamese breakfast and a nutritious way to start the day, although most pho houses in Vietnam, as well as in this country, now serve it all day. There's just something about pho that satisfies on so many levels, at all times of day: part chicken soup, part pot roast, part spaghetti, it's healthy, hot, filling and addictive.
The cooking process, the types and amounts of ingredients used to make the broth, and the meats added later all have a bearing on the pho's final flavor. For starters, beef shins are boiled until the bones release all of their gelatinous insides, a process that takes about 24 hours. The resulting broth, a sort of consommé, is then salted and boiled down with herbs -- cilantro and basil are common -- and such spices as star anise, ginger and black pepper, along with paper-thin slices of onion, until it takes on an almost tawny hue. It then sits in a big cauldron on the stove awaiting the day's orders. At Pho 79, this broth is a concentrated, faintly salty, fairly beef-strong concoction.
You order your pho based on the types of meats you want added; at Pho 79, the possibilities are explained helpfully at the top of the menu. They include tai, thin slips of eye of round steak; chin, well-done brisket; gau, fatty brisket; gan, soft tendon; nam, well-done flank steak; ve don, skirt flank; sach, tripe; and bo vien, a super-soft beef-based meatball. So an order of pho tai chin will have eye of round steak and well-done brisket floating in the basic broth -- along with whatever other tidbits the restaurant likes to put in -- as well as fresh cilantro, just-chopped scallions and the standard large mound of flat rice noodles.
It's not enough to put the right meats in your pho; they must also be done right. The eye of round, which comes from a cut off the hind leg that isn't attached to the bone and can be tough, was slightly undercooked in my pho tai chin, so that by the time I snagged it off the top of the hot soup with my chopsticks, it was close to perfect. The raw steak in the pho tai chin gau gan sach, on the other hand, required a dunk beneath the noodles so that it could cook a little more, and in that dunking it imparted a yummy, extra beef-bloody flavor to the soup. In addition to the steak, that bowl included fatty brisket, which was deliciously chewy and tasty. (Like tripe and soft tendon, with their rubbery textures and flavors more reminiscent of organ meats than steak, fatty brisket is an acquired taste.)
While you are focusing all of your senses on the delicious contents of your bowl, some of Pho 79's classic pho-house elements might escape your notice. For example, after you've placed your order and received your food and drink, you'd have to put a speed bump next to your table in order to get the server's attention again. And if the eatery is busy, you'll be sitting next to a lot of people you don't know at one of those long tables. (Don't worry: Everyone in a pho house knows the deal and is at least civil to strangers.) And don't wait for the bill, either; your tab is kept next to the cash register, where you're expected to pay. Also, never expect to enjoy your meal in silence; places like Pho 79 tend to do annoying housecleaning chores -- such as sweeping the floor or piling dirty dishes on an unused table when it's too busy to get them into the kitchen -- in the middle of a meal rush. One night I sat beside a group of servers who were emptying plastic bottles so that they could be washed and refilled: It was like eating next to forty people taking turns sitting on whoopee cushions.