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Bite Me

All I Need

We are a highly mobile people these days. Not many of us are now where we were yesterday (or yestermonth or yesteryear), and we feel this displacement in weird ways. For example, I'm always gripped by a wicked wave of homesickness in the middle of October, right around the time when the trees back home in upstate New York would catch fire overnight with their autumn colors and the whole world started smelling of cinnamon and leaf fires. I loved fall when I lived there, but I never knew how much I loved it until I left.

But then, if I ever leave the West and make my way back to the Rust Belt that birthed me, how will I live through September without the smell of roasting chiles, that afterburner roar of the gas jets kicking on and the scraping pop of the pods taking their first jolt of the heat, the feel of a full plastic bag of roasted chiles slick and warm in my hands? In New Mexico, chile season was like Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July all rolled into one -- a celebration of plenty and an excuse for a thousand different parties. Here in Colorado the season is more muted, but we have other things to be thankful for: the opening of ski season, the aspens turning, the annual running of the frat boys down in LoDo and up in Boulder.

Reminiscing about autumn and chiles got me thinking about the transient nature not just of my life over the past decade, but of the lives of a lot of people I've come to know in that time. It got me thinking about food (but then, almost everything does) and the way we use it to make new places seem less strange; how the simplest things -- a warm bag of fresh chiles, a hot dog, a slice of pizza, any little taste of wherever we call home -- can sometimes take on such weight that they become the most important things in the world.

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Pho Fusion

8800 E. Hampden Ave.
Denver, CO 80231

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Southeast Denver

I'm calling this Transplant Survival Foraging (TSF for short), this desperate need that comes over people in a new place to lay hands on the foods that defined their former place. In this modern age, when almost everyone is from somewhere else, TSF is a survival skill, a trick you learn to stay sane and centered. There are hundreds of websites out there that aid people in their search; message boards, books and support groups are dedicated to helping folks from Hawaii who suddenly find themselves in New Jersey locate a decent bowl of poi or some musubi, or helping Korean immigrants locate kimchi in Wyoming, or telling uprooted New Yorkers where to get a decent corned beef on rye in Mississippi. One of the first things I look for when scouting my next home town is good pho, the kind I found at Pho Fusion (see review, page 61). New York, New Mexico, Colorado, California: I've never lived any decent amount of time anywhere that didn't have a healthy, vibrant and competitive community of Vietnamese restaurants -- with the exception of Florida, so it's no wonder I fled that state so goddamn fast.

While researching fried chicken ("Fry It, You'll Like It," September 8), I learned that displaced Missourians homesick for the taste of pan-fried chicken like they make at Stroud's in Kansas City were directed to the Castle Cafe in Castle Rock, and that many of them consider that spot a lifesaver. On the other hand, plenty of Southerners who've washed up in the Mile High City couldn't care less about cast-iron pans and slow-cooked flat-fryers. What they want is the fried chicken they remember from a hundred lazy summer afternoons at backyard cookouts or nights hunched up in a booth at some backwater chicken-and-waffle joint. Their chicken of choice is deep-fried, thickly battered, flashed in the hot oil and then left to sizzle until it's golden, greasy and delicious. For them, there's Joseph's Southern Food, at 2868 Fairfax Street, which also satisfies the cravings of folks from deeper in the Southwest, as well as those from Detroit, Chicago and the Twin Cities. Right next door, at Brooks Smokehouse (2856 Fairfax), Ronald and Louella Brooks satisfy lower-parish Cajun cravings with wicked 'gator sausages and a crawfish étouffée worth its weight in gold.

The Holy Grail of the TSF quest is finding real Italian food west of the Mississippi. Millions of words (probably half of them mine) have been penned about this search; countless hours wasted by twitchy East Coasters on the prowl for a good meatball, a right red sauce, a proper plate of spaghetti. If you've never spent any significant amount of time back East -- never been spoiled by the absolute, incalculable profusion of great joints, dives, trattorias, ristorantes and holes-in-the-wall -- then you'll never fully understand the joy of finding a place out West that measures up. I've sat at tables with pasty, surly, dark-eyed red-gravy junkies -- men and women who've been beaten down by years of "egg noodles and ketchup" (in the perfectly prosaic words of Henry Hill in GoodFellas) -- and I've seen these people light up like kids on Christmas morning when, finally, they hit on a plate that satisfies them, that takes them right back home.

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