By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
What's that?" asks the young Vietnamese guy sitting at the table across from mine. He brings his hands together, palms touching, then opens them -- miming the book I have in one hand.
I raise it up off the table and show him the cover -- it's my well-thumbed copy of Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour, with a wine stain on the front and pages beginning to curl -- and the guy nods, smiling. "I've read it," he says, then grimaces, raises an imaginary rifle to his shoulder and makes childish machine-gun noises. "Phnom Penh."
"The Gun Club, yeah," I say. "That was great." We're talking about the scene in which Tough Guy Tony visits a restaurant where the menu is made up primarily of guns and ammunition and customers are encouraged to drink heavily, then blow some shit away on the attached firing range. It's one of the more memorable moments in the book -- not my favorite, but a good one. Somewhere in the great wide world, Bourdain's ears must be burning to hear a Vietnamese cook and a pasty-white restaurant critic all the way out here in Denver, Colorado, sitting over steaming bowls of pho tai gan, discussing his book.
1080 S. Havana St.
Aurora, CO 80012
781 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
Small pho: $4.50
We talk a little more. The cook's English is broken, but not badly; it's certainly better than my non-existent Vietnamese. He asks if I come to Pho 79 often, and I say not as much as I'd like, which is the truth. Given the chance, I'd be here all the time.
He says he comes here a lot. He knows someone -- either in the kitchen or on the floor, I can't be sure. "Best pho," he says, tapping the table. Then he asks if I've ever been to Vietnam.
I haven't, and say so. "Not yet, anyway," I add. "But someday."
I certainly want to go. I want to eat the entire country, from the delta to the highlands and back. I want to slouch around Saigon in a cowboy hat, having three dinners a day and getting into trouble. That's why I'm reading Bourdain's book again, I explain. Rereading it for maybe the tenth time. About half of it takes place in Vietnam, and that half is almost all about eating.
So the cook and book lover at the table across from mine insists that I go to Vietnam, and before I do, he says, I should talk to him again. He has family in the city (what city isn't exactly clear), and they'd be happy to show me around.
It's an offer that I, as a suspicious American city boy born and bred to doubt every motive of my fellow man, would find strange if not for the fact that I've gotten a dozen such offers from near-total strangers in Vietnamese restaurants, bars and cafes over the years. So I bob my head and say thank you, I will do just that, and shake his hand when he gets up to leave. As he threads his way through the crowd up to the counter to pay, I realize I never got his name, much less the name of the restaurant where he cooks.
During lunch at the Pho 79 in Aurora's weird little Korean-Viet-Thai neighborhood along Havana Street (my favorite of Pho 79's three locations), the flat, plan dining room is full almost to capacity with a mob acting more like friendly parishioners at a church social than a bunch of strangers grabbing lunch. Mute TVs hanging in the corners play news and soap operas; Asian pop music comes squealing out of the boombox set on the counter below the statue of the Virgin Mary and the little plastic bottle of holy water kept, I assume, in case of vampire invasion. The building -- low and bunkerish, with just a couple of small windows and prints of Saigon at night hung on the walls -- is an echo chamber, conversations bouncing and mingling in the warm, still air, most of them in quick, chattering Vietnamese punctuated by bright spikes of directionless laughter. It sounds like cats talking -- all T's and K's and long, drawn-out vowels. The crowd is a mutt mix of neighborhood families, couples making googly eyes at each other over tall glasses of boba tea, employees from the car wash next door, grandparents and children, all arranged into singles, deuces, four-tops, eight-tops and more. Kids run dodging through the maze of legs and tables, playing tag and getting in the way of the waiters who move like dancers, balancing huge trays of bowls and bottles and condiments on their shoulders.
They're good, these waiters, and despite the full house, they're quick. They don't even stop to make fun of the two white kids seated near the front door who are trying to eat pho with a chopstick in each hand, stabbing randomly into their bowls and hoping for the best. They speak serviceable English, too, although since the kitchen serves nothing but pho -- slow-simmered beef broth and noodles with a selection of cow parts all sliced and diced and boiled into the mix -- and the menu is arranged by number, pointing and smiling is generally enough to get your order across.