Bite Me

I don't usually go to restaurant openings. There are several reasons for this, chief among them that the events themselves -- filled with back-slapping and pasted-on smiles -- generally bear no resemblance to how the places will look on their first day of actual service, and the food is nothing like what will eventually issue forth from the kitchen once the cooks get into the swing of things. Then there's the problem of a critic's anonymity. It's tough to sound convincing when I'm wearing a fake mustache and telling everyone I'm Mr. Terwilliger, the owner's cousin's former roommate -- but it would be even worse to be recognized, cornered by the recipient of a bad review and savaged with an oyster fork.

So it was purely by accident that I showed up at a new joint on its first day of business. Pho 2000, at 3150 South Parker Road, in the long-suffering Regatta Plaza, opened its doors on Saturday, April 12, with no fanfare whatsoever. Laura and I spotted the Pho 2000 sign as we headed out to the movies -- on our way to see The Quiet American -- and Vietnamese food sounded like just the thing to get the night started.

The strip-mall space is unusual, presenting would-be diners with a Let's Make a Deal-esque choice. Pick the door on the right, and you're in the Asia Noodle Restaurant, a comfortable, dimly lit room reminiscent of every other storefront Chinese outfit you've ever seen. Go with door number two, on the left, and you're in Pho 2000 territory -- a white room with white walls, as brightly lit as an operating theater, tinged red and blue by the giant neon pho bowls in the big front windows. There are white stairs with white banisters that lead to an as-yet-incomplete demi-floor above, where blown-up pictures of everything on the twelve-item menu -- which includes nine varieties of pho -- hang from white railings.

The two eateries are connected by a common service area. But while they appear to share staff, their menus are completely separate. I can't vouch for the Chinese dishes, but Pho 2000's food is a welcome addition to this weird little melting pot of a block, where you can now find Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian, Nepalese and Korean fare, all within a hundred paces. Since the fryers weren't yet up and running, we didn't get to try the egg rolls, but we did share an order of chewy Vietnamese spring rolls, easy on the mint and stuffed with greens, glass noodles, bits of fried onion and fat sliced shrimp, served with a side of mild red-pepper sauce. And the pho was excellent. The bowls were huge, filled with hot, deeply flavored, slow-simmered stock poured over Vietnamese vermicelli noodles and swimming with rare steak (cooked by the heat of the broth), fish balls, tendon, shrimp, chicken and all the other usual suspects, depending on your menu choice. Incredibly fresh purple basil, white onion, mung bean sprouts and lime arrived at the table on a separate plate, attended by bottles of Sriracha sauce, red-pepper paste and an excellent, nutty hoisin.

It was a great dinner -- cheap, fast and delicious. And I had the most fun I've ever accidentally had at a restaurant opening watching the children of the proud new owners and staff running around the place in oversized Pho 2000 aprons, instructing each other on how not to touch the tables, slide down the railings or bother the customers, all the while sliding down the railings, climbing on the tables and laughing at the tops of their lungs. Frankly, I think those kids should be invited to every opening in town, if for no other reason than to remind the rest of us how to have a good time at these sorts of events.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: The Colorado Legislature has (thankfully) killed a bill sponsored by Republican senator Bruce Cairns that would have required all restaurants to post their most recent health-inspection reports on the front door or in the lobby. Why was this a bad idea? Because for the most part, the dining public just ain't qualified to make a judgment on a place based on its inspection certificate. The inspectors are tough (as they should be) and thorough (as they'd better be), and they don't miss much -- but the inspection report is really only accurate on the day it's given. If a fly sneaks into the kitchen on the day the inspector arrives, that goes down as an insect problem -- which makes everyone think cockroach -- and a temperature spike of one or two degrees in the coolers can easily get a restaurant marked off for a "failure to hold cold" violation. Most minor issues are remedied on the spot, while the inspector is still in the house, and if it's something major, the owners are left with a simple choice: Fix it or close.

Which was why I always loved the health inspectors. When I was running kitchens, these guys were my buddies, because I tried hard to have a clean galley, and if I (or the owners, or some of my crew) was doing something wrong, I wanted to know about it so I could fix it. When you need a new lowboy but the money guys are too cheap to spring for it, a bad inspection report is very good leverage.

On the one hand, I've never run a place that was shut down by the health department. On the other, I've never once had an inspection come back 100 percent green. I've had stoves red-tagged because the pilot flames kept blowing out in a bad cross draft, sinks that needed to be rebuilt because the plumbing wasn't up to code, cooks that got caught eating on the line -- a hundred different things, not one of them dangerous to the general public, but also none of them things my potential customers needed to be reading about if they didn't understand the circumstances behind the violation.

The way the system works now is good: An inspector drops by a restaurant unannounced, pokes around, sticks his nose (and his thermometer) in other people's business, then fills out a form. That form lets the restaurant know what's right and what's wrong and what needs to be fixed before he comes back -- usually in a week or so -- for a followup. If a restaurant owner and his staff fix what's wrong (and if nothing new has gone wrong in the interim), then everything is fine. They get their new inspection sticker and are in the clear until the next inspection, six months to a year away. If they haven't fixed the problems -- or if the original problem was so serious that it was posing a danger to the public -- the place gets shut down. And when a place gets shut down by the health department, everyone knows it. A big red sticker appears on the door, the lights go out, the doors are locked, and it's pretty obvious to anyone walking by that some serious bad news is going down.

Leftovers: Not far from the Pho 2000/Asia Noodle Restaurant neighborhood in Aurora, Kabul Kabob has opened at 11002 East Yale Avenue. If you're never tried Afghan food before, its flavors come in perfect relation to its place in the geographical spectrum -- somewhere between Indian and Middle Eastern, with a touch of Far East mountain cooking and a heft that reflects Tajik and Uzbek traditions in the old Soviet Union. Afghan food is nuts, rice, kabobs and dumplings when you get right down to it -- and it's damn good.

A little further afield, Pravda opened this past Friday at Copper Mountain. Despite the distance, the restaurant is worth noting for two reasons. First, a forty-label-strong exclusive vodka menu served in an atmosphere that rips off all the best of the old Cold War commie shtick that I love so much. Propaganda posters, security guards dressed in KGB trenchcoats.... Call me a sucker, but it's a theme that hasn't yet been exploited to death. And second, I just like the name.

Closer to home, Potager (1109 Ogden Street) has done some spring cleaning. To quote from the new menu: "In the kitchen we have lost interest in stews and braises for the moment, as greens, lettuces and spring vegetables find their way to our plates from the farms and markets." Lost interest in stews and braises for the moment -- I like how that sounds, and love a kitchen that does its own thing whenever the mood strikes. Potager's new board of fare includes fresh asparagus soup; Bellwether Farms fresh ricotta-cheese gnocchi with fava beans; homemade ravioli with buche des causses goat's-milk cheese fresh from the Loire Valley; Camembert-crowned Meyer lemon and English-pea risotto; roast suckling pig; and wilted savory greens cooked with garlic and lemon.

Tranquili-tea Tea Room (4615 East Colfax Avenue) is now pouring afternoon tea Sunday through Thursday for those who find such a thing appealing. And for those who thirst for something stronger, my many spies report that the Qdoba at 1400 East 17th Avenue -- and that Qdoba only -- is selling buck bottled beers (including Mexican varieties) from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. seven days a week. Even better, the outlet is thinking of extending the deal until 8 p.m. sometime soon, depending on how business picks up.

And finally, the Best of Denver curse that did in Bistro 250 last week continues, with the Parlour Bar and Grill (846 Broadway) now going dark. I'd given the Parlour the nod for Best Use of Mexican Food in a Non-Mexican Restaurant for its excellent shrimp enchiladas, but unless you jumped right on this little tidbit and hustled over to try that dish fast, you missed the boat.

The space, which did business originally as the Parlour -- a favorite watering hole for cops, newsmen and neighborhood types -- became Basil Ristorante in the late '90s, with the northward migration of staff and owners from Basil Pasta Bar down Broadway. Last summer, owner Peter Wolfgang Schlicht decided to do a retro turn, closing briefly for some renovations and a menu overhaul, then opening back up in September under the name Parlour Bar and Grill. The trouble was, no matter what you called the place or how it was decorated, the Parlour suffered from some very slow nights. And as of last week, the newest piece of embellishment was the brass-trimmed sign hung by the front door thanking the Parlour's patrons for all the good times and announcing that the doors were closed for good.

Before the ink was even dry on the Parlour's Best of Denver 2003 plaque, too.


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