By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
There are some restaurants where the world does not intrude -- rooms where time does not pass, weather does not change, current events go unnoted. Often inadvertently, these restaurants have successfully stopped time -- a trick that mad scientists and evil super-geniuses have been attempting since forever with dark matter and black holes and atomic-energy-mo-trons, but that here is accomplished with nothing more than an old-school egg roll and a total disregard for advances in the field of interior decorating.
On the East Coast, some restaurants exist in accidental celebration of eras and epochs best forgotten. In New York City, there are delis that haven't seen a full house since the last big transit strike, with owners who scan the papers and stare out the grimy front windows hoping for union troubles or a nearby bus crash. In Philly, there are menus that haven't been updated one iota since powdered wigs, topcoats and gout stools were required in the dining room. In Rochester, there's a sushi joint that absolutely refuses to get on the fresh-seafood bandwagon, preferring to make everything from local, fake or frozen product, the way it was done back in the bad old days; it may be the only place on the planet where you can get lake-trout hand rolls and pike sashimi.
I knew (and loved) a knock-off Chinese tiki-bar restaurant in Albuquerque precisely because it seemed like no one who worked there had been allowed outside since the early '60s. To them, Kennedy was still president, the Beatles were just a bunch of longhairs who wanted to hold your hand, and the streets were full of sexy Vettes and pre-Fastback Mustangs. I imagined that they were merely bemused by the changing styles of dress affected by the slow trickle of diners who wandered in and out. And when whole days and nights went by without a single customer, I pictured the lot of them -- cooks and waitresses, the house band, managers in dusty tuxedos with frilled shirts, bartenders wearing arm garters -- sitting down and discussing, in hushed tones, whether the big trend of Polynesian cocktails and Don Ho covers was finally coming to an end.
8101 S. Quebec St.
Englewood, CO 80112
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Vietnamese egg rolls: $4.75
Pho (small, medium and large): $5.25/$6.25/$6.75
Rice plates: $6.95/$7.50
Noodle bowls: $6.95/$7.50
Vietnamese coffee: $2.75
This was one of my favorite restaurants in the entire city, a spot where time hadn't just been held up like a box of fruit in Customs, but flat-out stopped. No matter what was going on in the world, the dining experience never, ever changed. The place was open on Christmas -- without tree, wreaths and Santa hats to muss the bowl-cuts of the cadre of ancient waitresses. During a city-crippling snowstorm, the band kept grinding away at its extended, 28-minute version of "Girl From Ipanema," and the bartender continued to touch every drink he could with a blue crown of alcohol fire. A few days after 9/11, Laura and I ate here in a weird commemoration, a return to normalcy in a place that we knew would somehow feel totally unaffected by recent events. And we were right. The band was playing, the waves lapping quietly against their artificial island in the middle of their artificial lake in the middle of the completely artificial Hawaii-meets-China dining room with the outrigger canoe hanging from the ceiling and the torches guttering in the cross-breeze. The service was as glacially slow as ever, but the Mai-Tais and Suffering Bastards were still strong enough to strip paint. I heard someone at the bar wondering aloud what the president was going to do about this problem; I'm pretty sure he was talking about JFK and Russian missiles in Cuba.
I love these time-stands-still places the way other people do museums or opera or television shows about dinosaurs. They offer diversion, escape on the cheap for the cost of an umbrella drink and a bowl of subgum wonton soup. But I also cherish them, never wanting to return so frequently that I become a regular or even a remembered face. I dole out my meals in these restaurants like special, private holidays from the real world -- often eating there on actual holidays that go completely unrecognized inside the dining room.
That's how Laura and I ended up (again) at Pho Saigon two weeks ago, desperate for a place to hide out from Santa's elves and to escape the snow that had otherwise provided me with so much entertainment as I watched panicked last-minute shoppers and the forever unprepared ram their cars into each other in the intersection just below my patio. I wanted a place where the holidays, all of them, would pass unnoticed, where the snow remained outside where it belonged, and nothing -- no date, no event, no disaster -- would be acknowledged.
Also, I wanted soup, and that's a Pho Saigon specialty. In particular, I wanted shrimp pho -- a rarity at most of the traditional Vietnamese pho shops on Federal and Alameda, where soup made of tendons and blood and cow stomach is just fine, but even a chicken stock is looked on with some suspicion. And while Pho Saigon's shrimp pho rated the very last slot at the bottom of the seventeen-variation pho board, right below chicken and simple pho bo vien, it was there, which was enough for me.