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By Jamie Swinnerton
The end of an era: While Denver continues to net new sushi restaurants (see review, above), the area's roster of Vietnamese restaurants has just decreased by one -- and a big one. T-Wa Inn (555 South Federal Boulevard), Denver's first Vietnamese restaurant and the place where many local diners were introduced to Vietnamese food, has been sold by owner Tom Lam. "I've been working here every day, day and night, for seventeen years now, have been in America for 21 years, and I'm not even married," says Lam, who opened T-Wa in 1984. "I have no 'me' anymore. I need to go find me."
Lam hopes that returning to Vietnam will help him find himself; he plans to spend at least a year there. After that, he hopes to come back to Denver. "This is my home; this is where I have my house and people I care about," he says. "I haven't been back to Vietnam since I came to this country, though, so who knows? But it was time for me to step down and let someone with more energy take over."
That someone is Vinny Tian, who's sold his interest in King's Land Seafood Restaurant (2200 West Alameda Avenue) and even brought King's Land's chef, Hong Kong native Tam Wan, with him to T-Wa. The name of the eatery is about the only thing that isn't changing, at least for now, although Lam told Tian it was all right with him if the T-Wa moniker disappeared. "Saigon, Thuy and Hoa, those names don't mean anything anymore," Lam says. "Everybody names their places with those names now, so I'm not worried if he changes it."
5600 E. Cedar Ave.
Denver, CO 80224
Region: Southeast Denver
630 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
The menu has already been altered to emphasize regional Chinese cuisine, with a handful of Vietnamese and Thai dishes thrown in. Tian also did some badly needed remodeling, including repainting and updating the furniture, and he added a lobster tank to the dining room. "You can get lobster done any way you want here," Tian says. "You pick your lobster and then tell us what you want done to it. We can do it Chinese-style, Vietnamese, something simple, whatever." To sweeten the deal, T-Wa is now offering a one-and-a-quarter-pound lobster for $15.50.
"I think Vinny will be very good for the place, because he has ideas," says Lam. "Still, I know it will be a different restaurant, and people will have to adjust." Even the folks at New Saigon (630 South Federal) -- the Vietnamese restaurant that appeared a block away from T-Wa just a year after Lam opened his place -- were surprised to learn of the sale. "It's always good to have good competition," says New Saigon owner Thai Nguyen. "We were always having to keep our quality high because of them."
Fortunately, you can still get Lam-style food at Chef's Noodle House (10400 East Sixth Avenue, Aurora), where Tom's brother Billy Lam serves up tasty, inexpensive noodle bowls.
Denver's been in a kosher pickle for decades, with few (and sometimes no) true kosher eateries. But in addition to Pete's Pizza(5600 East Cedar Avenue), which serves up completely kosher pies, the town now has Jeff's Diner (731 Quebec Street), which opened three months ago in a teeny strip mall. Owned by Jeff Auerbach, a Jew who keeps kosher and owns the kosher meatpacking plant Auerbach's Lyco Meat Co. in Commerce City, Jeff's Diner is small, family-oriented and very casual.
I learned that Jeff's was kosher by accident, when my daughters and I stopped in for a bite after a visit to Fairmount Cemetery, which is just down the road. When I asked if I could get cheese on my burger, manager Sammy Landman shook his head. "Sorry, we keep kosher here," he said. But the burger ($4.25) was just fine without the cheese. And the knishes ($2.95), fried until soft and hot inside and crispy golden outside, came with a bowl of chunky homemade applesauce on the side that made me forgive the fact that the knishes had been previously frozen. Jeff's was out of pastrami that day -- how can a Jewish eatery be out of pastrami? -- but it did have plenty of chicken soup with kreplach ($2.50 a cup), which had everything this homey elixir should: rich, chicken-packed broth; big chunks of meat; soft carrots; and kreplach (that's fat, puffy squares of noodle to all you goys and girls) that had been cooked in the broth until the dough soaked up plenty of chickeny goodness.
Since I was with my kids (oh, and I'm not Jewish), I really couldn't participate in the most interesting thing Jeff's has to offer, which is SpeedDating on Monday nights. Run by Rabbi Yaakov Meyer, the dating game is designed for Jewish folks looking for mates, and it involves participants chatting with prospective dates for just seven minutes, after which everybody switches to another conversational partner. At the end of the evening, the singles scramble to get the phone numbers of their favorites, and within 48 hours, they're supposed to be out on their first date. "It's very popular," Landman says, and he's not kidding: The place is wall-to-wall every Monday night.
On other nights, the diner is filled with families. And don't forget: Jeff's not only keeps kosher, it keeps the Sabbath holy. So the hours are 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, closed on Saturday.