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As we pull into the parking lot, I see the sign for live entertainment, Saturdays from nine until one in the morning. I find live music in a restaurant distracting, and say so as if after the years we've spent together -- nearly all of them described by the arcs of various meals -- Laura wouldn't already know this.
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
"I know," she says. "Good thing this isn't a Saturday, then, isn't it?"
We park the car. Vietnam House was once Pantuso's, an Italian restaurant in a building that looks like some kind of mountain villa, with a vaulted roof, a wraparound wooden porch, ponds, and an artificial stream and water wheel. Then one day it suddenly became Vietnam House. We're here now because we wanted something new and Vietnamese and different, three things that anyone in this neighborhood is guaranteed to find as long as they they're willing to look around.
In the breezeway is a picture of the entertainer who will be performing Saturday, along with Vietnamese words that I can't translate but assume are the names of songs, exhortations to come early, and hype like "fresh from two weeks at the Copa Room at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas..."
"That's a girl," I say, pointing to the picture with some authority, tapping my finger against it and scouting the sight lines from the hostess stand to see if I can steal it when no one's looking.
"He's got a mustache, Jay. That's a man."
"I see the mustache, but that's a girl." I am sure of it. The entertainer seems to be a young female-to-male Asian transsexual, unconvincing as a toaster made to look like a speedboat. The Fu Manchu and tiny smudge of a soul patch appear painted on, although the shaggy mane of scrofulous George Harrison Beatle hair lends the subject a certain, weird rock-star air. I'm impressed by the strangeness of it, the realization of an androgynous ideal attempted by generations of Ziggy Stardusts and Gary Numans and Marilyn Mansons.
We're seated near a stage that would be the pride of any small high school, any community theater with more ambition than budget. It takes up about a third of the substantial main floor, stretching out like a broad tongue from the back wall and already set with the amps, instruments and paraphernalia of a backing band: lights, lasers, programmable spots and a disco ball. A neon-colored picture of Vietnam hangs on the wall behind the stage, curled like some strange internal organ and surrounded by stars, music notes and the full name of the place -- Vietnam House Restaurant & Club -- spelled out with sparkles and glitter paint.
The stage is dark and the restaurant not even half full, but the space is warm and friendly and, in a twisting of normal physics, seems less lonely than it should for being so big and dim and underpopulated. Our waiter has a big smile and a drooping curtain of Tokyo-pop hair that hangs over one eye. He can't really come through with any recommendations for dinner, but he speaks enough English to take orders with confidence, to help me when I mangle my Vietnamese pronunciations and to mediate an argument between Laura and me (the same argument we've been having since the day we moved in together) over the proper way to operate a pair of chopsticks. She looks dignified and elegant with hers. I look like a retarded lobster snapping away with one atrophied claw.
The menu is huge, a sweeping expanse of food that runs from the most common pho bo vien and noodle bowls to goat fire-pot soup and tofu in basil-leaf sauce. There are twelve ways to ask for pork spare ribs and 26 fish dishes -- not counting the "special" fish dishes, the fish soups and fish with rice. The staff makes egg creams, salty lemonade, and milkshakes from longan, jackfruit (yogurty-sweet but strung with crystals of ice), avocado and durian. You can smell the durian shake from across the restaurant; it stinks like a corpse inexpertly interred beneath the floorboards, but tastes like a fine melon custard.
Our waiter brings appetizers, enough for ten people: crisp Vietnamese egg rolls chopped in half and served with rice noodles and lettuce leaves; grilled shrimp curled into tight commas; shrimp balls that look like fat, pink cocktail wieners and squeak when I bite them; shrimp-paste sandwiches between delicate leaves of rice paper; grilled pork and beef and noodles and sauces, and stiff rounds of rice paper that are used to wrap everything after they've soaked and softened in the pot of hot water set at the center of the table. Laura and I are both congenitally incapable of making rice-paper rolls that look like anything other than sticky, limp kindergarten art projects, but these taste fantastic because what's inside is fantastic.
I eat pho with everything: shaved rare beef, well-done beef, tendon, sliced discs of dense meatball like coins made of meat, and tripe done in the Vietnamese style -- cut thinly across the honeycomb grain so that each piece looks like a cross-section of sea anemone waving in the broth. This is a Southern pho, pale and light but incredibly filling, without the heavy-handed touches of star anise or too much fat. The side plate of fixings is like a miniature jungle of basil trees and limes that grow already sliced. I ignore the jalapeños and the stuff that looks like sawgrass and the basil stems, bruising just the leaves into the bowl for a hot shock of that deep-green flavor. And then I add Sriracha red-chile sauce and a little of the nuoc mam fish sauce, but do it on the sly because I've been told this is tantamount to putting ketchup on my Rice Krispies -- boorish and uncouth.
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.
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.
When the house switches on the stage lasers and drops the mirror ball, I know it's time to go.
Two days later, Laura and I are back at Vietnam House. She eats sesame chicken over puffed rice noodles that has an unusual, oniony aftertaste following a disappointingly cotton-candy-ish flavor. I try to order the lobster, steamed, with ginger and green onions, but it's sold out. I consider the crispy butter frog legs and the beer-steamed whole crab, but go with more comfort food: grilled pork chop, cut from the bone with the rind of fat preserved, served over rice with a soft fried egg on top and fish sauce on the side. It's rustic and delicious -- simple food, simply presented. We drink tea and Vietnamese coffee over ice, lingering until we are the only people left save the employees clustered around the service end of the bar. As we finally make our way out, we pass a picture of next Saturday's performer. This one is definitely a girl, crouching in a hiked-up white miniskirt, huge eyes like a cat, stage lights gleaming in her hair.
"No," Laura says before I can even say a word. "You don't like live music at restaurants, remember?"
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