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When I reach Tom Bird, owner of Pho Fusion, the first thing he does is apologize. He's sorry that the place doesn't look the way he'd like it to. It's kind of empty, not yet finished to his satisfaction.
8800 E. Hampden Ave.
Denver, CO 80231
Region: Southeast Denver
Spring rolls: $3.50
Vietnamese egg rolls: $3.95< br>Lettuce wraps: $5.95
Crab wontons: $3.95
Noodle bowls: $6.50-$7.95
Sesame chicken: $6.95< br>Sweet-and-sour chicken: $6.95
"I know, you walk in and you can see that it's a bootstrap operation," he says. "Obviously, this isn't one of those $300,000 or $400,000 openings."
I make conciliatory noises into the phone and tell him that I understand. Opening a place -- especially your first place -- is never easy. Even if you have half a million, a full million, ten million dollars, your restaurant never looks, never feels, exactly the way you want it to. A good owner will always see something that needs to be done -- the baseboards painted, the seats recovered, the art rearranged on the walls. This fiddling and fussing over details can (and generally will) go on for the entire life of the restaurant. And the way this business works, if there ever comes a day when an owner does get a place looking exactly the way he wants it to, the next day there'll be a grease fire in the kitchen and the building will burn to the ground. The food gods find that sort of thing hilarious.
Truth is, I didn't notice anything wrong when I stepped into Pho Fusion for the first time last month. To my eye, there wasn't anything missing except customers -- and Bird suggests that's because I didn't come at the right time.
I liked how the room looked. The warm, earth-tone walls decorated with only a few overblown Asian characters; the simple tables and simpler settings; the space between those tables; the plain counter -- I thought it was deliberate urban minimalism, nearly Japanese in its austerity. But I don't tell Bird this, because I want him to keep talking, to hear what he plans for the future. I want to know if he's going to change his soup.
His pho, to be precise -- that slow-cooked meat broth with scallions, shaved onions and rice noodles to which I'm so shamelessly addicted. Pho is as central to everyday Vietnamese cuisine as chicken noodle and cheeseburgers are to American cookery. In Vietnam, it's both comfort food and convenience food, simmered all day in big pots in family kitchens, served on every street corner in Saigon and Da Nang, offered up for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks. Pho Fusion makes its broth from scratch every day, then turns it into four kinds of pho -- with shaved beef, with chicken, swimming with squeaky sliced meatballs, and in a beef-and-meatballs combination. Each version comes with the ubiquitous side plate of lime quarters, bean sprouts, cilantro, sliced chiles and basil so fresh and vibrant it looks like slivered jade, so powerful it seems to vibrate. The tables are already set with Sriracha like bottled dragon fire, with hoisin sauce and soy. The pho is served in a dish so big that were I ever to finish an order, I could wear the empty bowl on my head like a hat. Only I've never seen the bottom of a bowl. Three-quarters is about the best I can do -- and all things considered, that's probably for the best. Pho Fusion is still struggling to build up its customer base, after all, and I wouldn't want to scare anyone away with an impromptu Madame Butterfly impression -- tablecloth ao dai, soup bowl on my head, chopsticks in my hair.
Pho Fusion opened in May 2004 to zero fanfare, which Bird says was just fine with him. He wanted a slow and gentle opening, he claims, a smooth glide that would move him out of one career -- as an investment banker in Los Angeles, handling big media mergers and acquisitions -- and into his new role as fresh meat for this grinder of an industry that gleefully welcomes cash-rich rookies, drains their passions, empties their bank accounts and usually leaves them standing on the street, reeling and confused, wondering what the hell just happened as their creditors haul away the stoves and boxes of flatware.
But Bird had a couple of factors working in his favor. First and foremost, he was a businessman with a businessman's head governing his restaurateur's heart. He knew exactly what he was getting into when he picked up this Hampden Avenue space -- formerly a buck-a-scoop Chinese buffet of no renown, but with good street visibility and a big parking lot -- and chose it over properties he'd been scouting in Boulder, L.A. and the Bay Area. "I figured I could mitigate my chance of failure to 50 percent here," Bird says, laughing but also serious, a realist to the bone. "Seriously, I didn't go into this thinking I had an 80, 90 percent chance of success. I'm not deluded."
Second, Bird is a Colorado native with roots in the community. Sure, for a time he was lured away by the cheap and sluttish charms of the Left Coast, but he grew up here, went to Smoky Hill High School, knew the people, knew the town. He's also half Vietnamese, and he recognized that a core of potential customers in the neighborhood -- which is partly Vietnamese, but with a heavy Korean accent -- would immediately understand what he was offering. They'd see that he was trying to present authentic Asian flavors in a non-threatening environment (read: English menus, and servers who aren't openly suspicious of squirrelly redheaded restaurant critics wandering in demanding Vietnamese coffee, spring rolls and bowls of tripe and tendon). Originally, he speculated that maybe 50 percent of his early customers would come in, like me, just for pho, or for pad thai and noodle bowls. (Being a man enamored of figures and percentages, Bird throws them around in his speech like punctuation.) The other half, he would have to educate.
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