By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
It's one o'clock in the morning and I'm still eating crab. I've been eating crab since my wife went to bed more than an hour ago, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, watching cartoons with the drifty stare of an acid casualty, surrounded by the wreckage of sixty minutes of constant consumption -- plates, forks, shells, wadded napkins, two cans of Coke, takeout styros with the tops torn off, little plastic cups of clear, sour-sweet nuoc mam speckled with flakes of red chile. There's a stain on the carpet where I fumbled a piece of crab, the tarry black sauce drooling into the nap. It's going to be there forever, that stain, impossible to clean. I brushed off the carpet fuzz as well as I could and ate the crab anyway. I'm not wasting a bite.
I'm high -- boggle-eyed, adrift, brain cut loose at the stem and floating, its vital machinery caramelized. I've switched off most of the lights, closed the blinds in the living room -- not that it's really necessary in my anti-Desperate Housewives neighborhood, where they roll up the sidewalks at nine and nobody cares what the hell I do to amuse myself after dark. But it isn't the hippie lettuce. Not tonight. It's the crab. It's the meditative focus required to pull every bit of meat from the rough-chopped Dungeness shells, the willful dissolution of the self necessary to really get into it -- to not care about the carpet, the sauce smeared all the way up to my wrists and over my chin, the colossal mess I'm making, hunched over the styros like a penitent in an old T-shirt and blue jeans, my whole world reduced to just this crab leg, this sauce and the rainbow glow of the TV.
Eating crab alone. It's better then sparking a bowl full of brown city dirtweed and then sacking out on the couch with Twinkies, better than a self-inflicted opium coma. I'm getting a little old for blowing joints on a school night anyhow, but this -- cua rang muoi, sautéed hard-shells, broken and piled like some terrible crustacean car wreck, swimming in a buttery, spicy-sweet sauce that tastes of reduced balsamic vinegar but isn't, that smells like port wine jelly but isn't -- this is my new drug of choice.
Cua rang muoi: $13
Spring rolls: $3.50
Beef in grape leaves: $9.25< br>Bo quan tom: $11.25
Duck with lemongrass: $9.75< br>Mussels: $10.25
Pork in black- pepper sauce: $8.50
Chicken in bean paste: $10.25
And I know now that you have to eat the crabs alone, at home -- maybe not in the dark or wrapped up in some culinary Heart of Darkness trip like this, but certainly out of public view. What you want is privacy. What you want is the personal freedom to get all caveman on the crabs without embarrassing yourself, to pull the shells apart with your fingers, suck the meat out of the legs and spit out the cartilage, to eat without manners.
I'd realized this a few hours earlier, while sitting in the little dining room at Kim Ba -- sitting there with my entree staring at me.
"You're not eating," Laura said, which wasn't entirely true. I'd eaten plenty: goi cuon -- spring rolls wrapped in thick rice paper and dipped in a chunky black-bean and peanut sauce; a weird five-spice beef-and-veggie concoction stuffed in grape leaves like a Vietnamese dolma; addictive shrimp wrapped in the same beef, then grilled with a thick slice of onion in the center. I'd had some of Laura's chicken, done in a blazing hot sauce fired with a spicy bean paste that gave a short, sharp kick of heat like licking Sterno, then faded into an earthy, smoky flavor suggestive of Mexican adobo. Spooned out over glutinous rice, the big chunks of tender white meat were wonderful.
Everything about our meal had been wonderful (even if the spring rolls were a little dry). Kim Ba is among Denver's oldest Vietnamese restaurants, a shirttail relative of more famous spots on South Federal, holding down this near-invisible space in a ghost-town strip mall for nearly twenty years. In that time, its menu has been perfected into a cornucopia of ultra-traditional flavors, reflecting in proper ratio the variety of ethnic influences that have nibbled away at the edges of Vietnamese cuisine for centuries without ever becoming fused to its central canon. The green-lip mussels come in a Thai coconut curry sauce. The thit heo kho tieu -- pork cooked in a spicy black-pepper sauce -- reminds me of the pork sandwiches I used to eat with a couple of Laotian dishwashers who worked with me at an Italian restaurant back in New York, brothers who never left the house without their mother packing them a bag lunch better than anything we served. Bo xao dam is beef sautéed in a wine-and-vinegar sauce: a little French, a little Chinese. The vit xao xa ot, duck sautéed with lemongrass, is more French than anything, even in the way it's cut. The French are the only cooks who've managed to mix comfortably with Vietnamese tradition and have any real effect on the country's cuisine.
But Laura was right. I wasn't eating my own dinner. I'd ordered ca chien xa ot -- marinated butterfish, coated with a grassy skin of pressed spices and pan-fried dark brown. It was a whole fish, presented with head and tail intact, looking a lot like the sunfish and crappies I used to catch when I would go fishing with my dad. I'd taken only one small bite, peeling back the skin near the head and forking out a piece of the best meat, north of the gill, south of the eye.