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Room at the Inn

T-Wa has been to hell and back.

In prison, they say the quickest way to gain respect among the general population is to pick the biggest, meanest, ugliest guy in your block and, on your first day inside, beat him to death with a chair. Sure, you'll spend a few months in the hole, but this establishes you right off the bat as a no-nonsense kind of fellow, a gentleman of quick temper and ill humor. In short, no one to mess with.

Needless to say, with a new job and a whole new community of restaurants to explore, I've been fighting a similar temptation to get out there and bust a few kneecaps. And sitting in T-Wa Inn's mostly uninhabited dining room one recent Thursday night, with an absolutely uninspiring Vietnamese noodle bowl topped with sliced-pork egg rolls sitting half-eaten in front of me, I smelled blood in the water. My first -- my only -- impression that night was that this place was dying, being choked out by its own storied history. I'll admit that I gave serious thought to how entertaining it might be to deliver the coup de grace to an on-again-off-again Denver favorite, but in the end my better nature (which I've been meaning to have surgically removed for years) won out. Instead, I took a step back, put down the chair and dove deep into the menu and the mind of Tuan Lam, T-Wa's former and now current owner.

"This is international food," Tuan says. "This is my choice. I tell people, 'You do what you want; now I do what I want.'" Talking with Tuan, I know immediately that I like him. It doesn't change my opinion of that noodle bowl, but a half-hour on the phone convinces me that this guy has a passion for food and for pleasing his customers, and a great attitude about the role of ethnic cuisine. I ask him about his menu and whether he's slanting it toward milder American tastes, and he tells me that if I want traditional Vietnamese food, then I should order it that way. He says: "I tell people, 'This is America! Eat hamburgers! Eat spaghetti!' Learn new ways to make food." Tuan, for example, likes his food healthy, made without too much oil and with the freshest ingredients available. He doesn't like eating fish bones (in Vietnam, small fish are traditionally eaten whole), so he serves fillets, and he doesn't like steaming meat, so he uses the grill or pan instead. T-Wa's kitchen reflects these tastes.

Veteran of kitchen wars: Tuan Lam gave Denver its first Vietnamese restaurant, T-Wa Inn. Now he's taken it back.
Veteran of kitchen wars: Tuan Lam gave Denver its first Vietnamese restaurant, T-Wa Inn. Now he's taken it back.

Location Info

Map

T-Wa Inn

555 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80219

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Southwest Denver

Details

555 South Federal Boulevard, 303-922-2378. Hours: 11a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Spring rolls $3.95

Fried dumplings $4.95

Soft-shell crabs $12.95

Noodle bowls $5.95

Catfish in ginger sauce $10.95

Stuffed quail $11.95

"I'm better in the kitchen," Tuan says. Before, "I talk to anyone. Sometimes, I talk too much. Now, I spend 80 percent of my time in the kitchen and only come out if someone asks for me." He tells me that while many restaurants will prepare salads or noodles in great quantities to get ready for the lunch and dinner rush, he's now makingI them one at a time so that everything is controlled by his hands. "Now, no one can say to me, 'Tuan, is something changing at T-Wa again?'"

He's referring to his recent reacquisition of T-Wa after it was owned for more than a year by Vinny Tian, a former partner in King's Land Seafood Restaurant. When Tuan sold the place to Tian, he left behind a large and loyal clientele who'd loved T-Wa for years, even decades, but weren't crazy about the change in ownership. For a full fifteen minutes, Tuan tells me horror stories about the intervening months: unpaid bills, weekly price changes, fortunes spent in remodeling, a nightmare menu that swelled to somewhere around 300 dishes.

But when I ask him why, after selling the place and getting away from those problems, he decided to go back to T-Wa, he pauses for probably the first time in the conversation, then says simply that he was embarrassed by what had happened to his restaurant.

All history aside, though, it's what T-Wa's doing today that really matters, and that brings us back to my uninspiring noodle bowl.

If eating is an adventure -- and to me, it always is -- then that first dish was like standing at the arrivals gate of an unfamiliar airport at the beginning of a long journey. I was a little lost, a little confused, but mostly I felt like the food hadn't taken me anywhere. The dish was timid, for starters, and Vietnamese food should never be that. The bun (Vietnamese-style vermicelli noodles made with rice flour) were stiff and undercooked; the egg rolls were fried beautifully, so that the skins were crisp as pulled sugar, but they had been stuffed with a pork filling that showed none of the interplay of flavor, texture and heat that is the hallmark of good Asian cuisine. Couple that with a nuoc cham (the ubiquitous orange dipping sauce served with nearly all things Vietnamese) that was cloyingly sweet in all the ways it should have been sharp, and an appetizer plate of four plump fried dumplings crammed with a pork mixture identical to that of my entree (and also identical to what you find in a thousand Chinese buffets the world over), and I was ready to end my voyage of discovery right there. I could have simply paid my bill and walked out the door, never to return.

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