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100 Favorite Dishes
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Laura has an impossibly large plate of impossibly good chicken curry, comfort food in this weird realm that has become her life. The curry is bright yellow like French's mustard and thick, coating the pieces of white meat and potatoes and gumming up the white rice she pours it over. Of course, the potatoes are underdone and the broccoli is sulfurous and sour from overcooking and incomplete shocking, but these are easily avoided.
I eat the last of the curry hours later, standing in the puddle of light cast by the open refrigerator door and picking through the to-go box with my fingers. If anything, the curry has gotten better.
Vietnamese egg rolls: $4.50
Appetizer platter: $29.95
Shrimp paste: $14.95
Pho dac biet (with everything): $7.95
Chicken rice soup: $6.95
Tamarind crab: $29.95
Curry chicken: $8.95
Late on Saturday afternoon, I decide that I must to go back to Vietnam House to see the show.
"But you don't like live music at restaurants," Laura reminds me.
I get there early, but the parking lot is already filling up. I sit in a booth near the door, with a good view of the stage over the tops of other customers' heads, and order beer: ice-cold Chinese Tsingtao rather than Vietnamese 33, because I don't like the vaguely formaldehyde aftertaste of 33. I'm hungry, so I order chao ga -- chicken-and-rice soup threaded with shavings of lemongrass and slices of ginger and golden-brown flakes of fried onion. The broth is viscous, almost like a starchy porridge, with freckles of black pepper and shreds of chicken suspended in it. Like a savage, I add Sriracha, winding laces of the bright-red chile sauce through the soup. The wicked kick of the Sriracha, the smoothness of the bland soup punctuated by the electric shock of biting down on a stick of lemongrass, the sparkle of the black pepper and the cold beer are a perfect combination. I settle into a cocoon of culinary happiness.
The band is setting up, and the hostess is now sitting at a table by the door. Three security guards mill around: big guys with pepper spray and holstered automatic pistols on their belts, the lines of bulletproof vests showing through their starched shirts. As each new party comes through the door, everyone's told to show ID, to pay a cover, to stand for a pat-down and a wanding by the efficient guards. There are gorgeous, tall Asian women in gowns and diamonds, wild-haired club kids in giant mirrored sunglasses, and five-foot tall gangsters with shaved heads and neck tattoos accompanying men wearing suits that probably cost what I make in a month.
I dig into my soup again. It's a huge bowl, but I am thorough. When I flag down my waitress for another beer, she spills it in my lap. The bottle is still three-quarters full, but she brings me a fresh one.
In the corner, two old women lounge in their chairs and drink tea. Across from me, a table of four devours an order of Dungeness crabs in red-black tamarind sauce. A waitress puts away all the menus and sets the tables with little cards offering $4 beers and $200 bottle service. On stage, one of the musicians is dry-humping a keyboard shaped like a guitar -- a key-tar, white plastic, probably with Huey Lewis's fingerprints still all over it.
I step out onto the patio for a cigarette. One of the security guards follows me out.
"So, is it always like this on Saturdays?" I ask.
"What do you mean? You ever been here before?"
"Yeah, but not for the entertainment."
He nods. "Sometimes it's like this, sometimes it's quiet. But this guy tonight? He's idolized. He's like the Southeast Asian Elvis."
He nods again, watches a car roll slowly through the lot. "Should be wild."
As I go back in, the lights go down. Somebody cranks up the radio -- club mixes with pounding beats -- and Vietnam House is suddenly Denver's answer to Saigon after dark and Saigon's version of the Boogaloo Room, Vegas '74. The band starts warming up in front of a backdrop luminous with Day-Glo colors and sparkles. It's a six-piece with a horn section that kicks into cool, swingtime instrumental jazz. The waitress takes my bowl away. I tell her I can move to the bar, free up a booth for the newcomers. But she says no, stay, be comfortable, and brings me another drink.
When Vietnamese Elvis bounces onto the stage from behind a screen, I realize that I was wrong. He's all man, although still sporting the unusual conglomeration of facial hair. The crowd lets out a collective gasp, and then he's on, choking the mike stand and belting out soaring love ballads while the band struggles to keep its timing together. He has stage presence like you wouldn't believe, working the apron like Mel Torme on two hits of ecstasy, with his rock-star hair and his shirt unbuttoned, his brown leather jacket, hip-hugger white twill pants and ball cleavage.
A couple gets up to dance, working through a slow pattern of formal ballroom steps. Cell-phone camera flashes wink everywhere. Vietnamese Elvis puts his head down, does a little Axl Rose dance, hits a warbling high note to restrained applause and whistles, then swings into what I swear to Christ sounds like a soft-jazz cover of "Ricky Don't Lose That Number," by Steely Dan. In Vietnamese.
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