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Green Light

Head for the hills -- the hill country of Sapa.

Walking into Sapa, the first thing you see are the green, green hills of home. Before that, it's just a box -- a nice box, fronted with a curving path leading to the door, lots of French windows and a nice patio wrapping around one corner, but a box, nonetheless -- grafted onto the far end of just another strip-mall retail enclave in Centennial full of hair salons, delis, insurance agents.

But inside, it's green. Soft, gentle green accented with green the color of new peas or sea foam, green like a peppermint spring morning, with air that tastes of the metallic chill of high-grade air conditioning and bittersweet vinegar. In the dining room, the tables are clothed in virginal white, set with bright silver and linen napkins folded into the starburst shape of flowers. The chairs are handmade, imported from Thailand. The chopsticks -- neither the generic, splintery wooden utensils found in most Asian restaurants nor the polished aluminum surgical instruments thrown around by the trend-suckers -- are heavy and carved into swirls, functional works of art. They fit with the art on the walls, the art on the handmade plates (painted with tiny clusters of flowers, the name Sapa worked into the twining stems), and the large aerial photograph of the hilly, tiered rice paddies of Vietnam extended along the curving, freestanding wall that separates the dining room from the service area in the back: The green, green hills of home, of Sapa, the mountain region in Vietnam's northern highlands for which the restaurant was named.

Green on green on green, and so peaceful, so soothing, that I can imagine other customers dropping into a Zen state of quiet, cool happiness the moment they fall under its spell.

But not me. High-strung, glandular freak that I am, it takes more than some front-of-the-house magic to crank down my nervous system, and I have a tendency to lash out against such attempts at tranquility being foisted upon me -- my body's natural reaction against calm, my brain's revolt against stillness. I would make an incredibly ineffectual Buddhist, would be the one monk in the temple shotgunning styros of coffee during meditation time, making up naughty koans in my off-hours, actively avoiding that sense of mental serenity that seems to be the prize at the last exit on the transcendental highway.

To that end, the first thing I ordered after I sat down was a cup of Vietnamese coffee over ice. Asian rocket fuel, that's what this stuff is. Strong black coffee, pure as death, drip-filtered into a small ocean of sweetened, condensed milk, stirred, then poured over ice. A perfect cup -- and this was -- is the color of rich caramel when it's done. The effect of drinking it is not dissimilar to the rising tide of a Benzedrine high, and with such a thing in their culturo-culinary arsenal, I'm frankly astounded that the Vietnamese don't rule the world. One cup is more than enough for the casual abuser, offering in its chilly depths enough jittery energy to keep you up for 24 hours straight, repainting your house or composing a symphony of breathless complexity on the back of a pack of matches. Two cups and you're the King of Spain, with your hair on fire and your eyelids pinned back to your forehead, unable even to blink.

I had three. But then, I am a hopeless junkie for the stuff, and Sapa's was so good -- so cold and sweet and powerful -- that I couldn't help myself.

I tried (unsuccessfully) to control my intake, to space it out over the course of an early dinner. I started with stuffed chicken wings, a modernist American take on the classic, French-influenced stuffed quail that's a staple of so many high-end Vietnamese menus. The wings were boned out into little meat envelopes stuffed with a rough-chopped filling of shrimp, black mushrooms, glass noodles and carrots, with more carrots (pickled and briny), more noodles (rice, and thicker than the standard Viet-Thai vermicelli, almost like cold spaghetti) and lettuce wraps served on the side.

And that was just an appetizer. I followed it with hu tieu, which I mispronounced so badly that it stunned my waiter for a moment, left him standing there, pen in hand, politely silent while I chattered away like a monkey who'd lost his crack pipe.

Hu tieu is a southern Vietnamese soup, less well known than pho, but a close cousin often found in restaurants run by those who grew up in the urban southern areas of the country and retain a fondness for it that's like the American obsession with chicken noodle. People like Yume Tran and Jeff Nghiem, the husband-and-wife team of Vietnamese immigrants who came to the Bay Area from Saigon, then to Denver from California, and opened restaurants -- first Indochine in Parker, then Sapa -- serving the kind of nouveau- traditional Vietnamese and Thai cuisine they couldn't find here, in an upscale environment they also thought the local Asian scene lacked.

Their hu tieu was amazing -- a powerful, slow-cooked, savory-sweet broth cloudy with complicated strata of flavor, made with pig, pig and more pig (an aspic-y pork gelatin, sautéed ground pork and pink, poached, sliced pork), then crowned with poached shrimp and served over glass noodles in a bowl the size of a modest vat. On the side were quartered limes, chiles, sprouts -- a whole tangle of vegetables, all of which I ignored in favor of the delicate little bowl of red vinegar that you add to the soup to counteract its slick sweetness. I dug in two-handed -- spoon in one, beautiful chopsticks in the other -- and would have sunk my whole face in the bowl if I didn't think it would have strained my waiter's patience past its limit. He was obsequious, soft-footed, quietly enthusiastic in his heavily accented English about everything on the menu, and he worked hard to maintain the dining room's sense of cool, green quietude. But three coffees had me bouncing in my seat like an electron in a highly unstable valence, and it would've taken elephant tranquilizers to bring me down. By the time I was done, I was pretty sure I could see into the future.

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