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Bite Me

We are a highly mobile people these days. Not many of us are now where we were yesterday (or yestermonth or yesteryear), and we feel this displacement in weird ways. For example, I'm always gripped by a wicked wave of homesickness in the middle of October, right around the time when the trees back home in upstate New York would catch fire overnight with their autumn colors and the whole world started smelling of cinnamon and leaf fires. I loved fall when I lived there, but I never knew how much I loved it until I left.

But then, if I ever leave the West and make my way back to the Rust Belt that birthed me, how will I live through September without the smell of roasting chiles, that afterburner roar of the gas jets kicking on and the scraping pop of the pods taking their first jolt of the heat, the feel of a full plastic bag of roasted chiles slick and warm in my hands? In New Mexico, chile season was like Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July all rolled into one -- a celebration of plenty and an excuse for a thousand different parties. Here in Colorado the season is more muted, but we have other things to be thankful for: the opening of ski season, the aspens turning, the annual running of the frat boys down in LoDo and up in Boulder.

Reminiscing about autumn and chiles got me thinking about the transient nature not just of my life over the past decade, but of the lives of a lot of people I've come to know in that time. It got me thinking about food (but then, almost everything does) and the way we use it to make new places seem less strange; how the simplest things -- a warm bag of fresh chiles, a hot dog, a slice of pizza, any little taste of wherever we call home -- can sometimes take on such weight that they become the most important things in the world.

I'm calling this Transplant Survival Foraging (TSF for short), this desperate need that comes over people in a new place to lay hands on the foods that defined their former place. In this modern age, when almost everyone is from somewhere else, TSF is a survival skill, a trick you learn to stay sane and centered. There are hundreds of websites out there that aid people in their search; message boards, books and support groups are dedicated to helping folks from Hawaii who suddenly find themselves in New Jersey locate a decent bowl of poi or some musubi, or helping Korean immigrants locate kimchi in Wyoming, or telling uprooted New Yorkers where to get a decent corned beef on rye in Mississippi. One of the first things I look for when scouting my next home town is good pho, the kind I found at Pho Fusion (see review, page 61). New York, New Mexico, Colorado, California: I've never lived any decent amount of time anywhere that didn't have a healthy, vibrant and competitive community of Vietnamese restaurants -- with the exception of Florida, so it's no wonder I fled that state so goddamn fast.

While researching fried chicken ("Fry It, You'll Like It," September 8), I learned that displaced Missourians homesick for the taste of pan-fried chicken like they make at Stroud's in Kansas City were directed to the Castle Cafe in Castle Rock, and that many of them consider that spot a lifesaver. On the other hand, plenty of Southerners who've washed up in the Mile High City couldn't care less about cast-iron pans and slow-cooked flat-fryers. What they want is the fried chicken they remember from a hundred lazy summer afternoons at backyard cookouts or nights hunched up in a booth at some backwater chicken-and-waffle joint. Their chicken of choice is deep-fried, thickly battered, flashed in the hot oil and then left to sizzle until it's golden, greasy and delicious. For them, there's Joseph's Southern Food, at 2868 Fairfax Street, which also satisfies the cravings of folks from deeper in the Southwest, as well as those from Detroit, Chicago and the Twin Cities. Right next door, at Brooks Smokehouse (2856 Fairfax), Ronald and Louella Brooks satisfy lower-parish Cajun cravings with wicked 'gator sausages and a crawfish étouffée worth its weight in gold.

The Holy Grail of the TSF quest is finding real Italian food west of the Mississippi. Millions of words (probably half of them mine) have been penned about this search; countless hours wasted by twitchy East Coasters on the prowl for a good meatball, a right red sauce, a proper plate of spaghetti. If you've never spent any significant amount of time back East -- never been spoiled by the absolute, incalculable profusion of great joints, dives, trattorias, ristorantes and holes-in-the-wall -- then you'll never fully understand the joy of finding a place out West that measures up. I've sat at tables with pasty, surly, dark-eyed red-gravy junkies -- men and women who've been beaten down by years of "egg noodles and ketchup" (in the perfectly prosaic words of Henry Hill in GoodFellas) -- and I've seen these people light up like kids on Christmas morning when, finally, they hit on a plate that satisfies them, that takes them right back home.

One friend's TSF list includes French dip sandwiches, good chicken parm and thin-crust New York pizza, and it's funny how I can track her nomadic history through the foods she can't live without. Her father was a truck-drivin' man, and she spent a lot of time hunched over plates of truck-stop French dip sandwiches, truck-stop French toast, truck-stop pie. After school, she moved from Colorado to New York and then back again, bringing with her a New Yorker's obsession with thin-crust 'za (which she gets at the downtown Anthony's, 1550 California Street, and nowhere else) and chicken parm sandwiches, which she picks up, off-menu, at Mikey's Italian Bistro (4140 West 38th Avenue). My friend Luke needs fried chicken (Joseph's style), chimichangas (for which I directed him to Las Brisas, featured in the September 1 Second Helping), and a place where the girls will buy him drinks (couldn't help him much with that one). Julie, a transplant from Chicago, wants -- no, needs -- gnocchi done the way the South Side Italian joints do it, and I've told her to check out Ristorante Amore, at 2355 East Third Avenue, maybe Parisi, at 4401 Tennyson Street. These gnocchi are actually Roma style and Florentine, respectively, but they're still good. Julie also needs a high-walled, deep-dish Chicago pie every now and then; fortunately, she can get the real thing at Beniamino's, at 1 Broadway. When he left Chicago, Ben Guest, who owns the joint and runs the kitchen, brought with him not just a secret recipe, but also custom-made pans seasoned up through fifty years of service at one of that town's most loved pie joints.

When I crave a taste of Buffalo, that two-note food town, one of my many adopted homes, I hit Luciano's Pizza and Wings (1043 Broadway) for pizza and wings. For hot dogs, I recently found the Old Fashioned Italian Deli, at 395 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton ("Hot Dog!," August 18), which serves up Sahlen's dogs and Weber mustard, and have consequently been feted as a conquering hero by that certain section of the Denver food community that, like me, fled Buffalo before freezing in place but miss its food every day.

My wife, a native of Philly and its environs, needs cheesesteaks to survive. When the urge comes over her, we go to Pat's #1, at 9211 East Arapahoe Road in Greenwood Village, or Taste of Philly, 2432 South Colorado Boulevard. She gets her cheesesteaks (wit', no Whiz, easy onions), and I load up on salami sandwiches, a Dr. Brown's or Frank's black-cherry Wishniak (when available), occasionally Tastykakes.

People asking about Cuban sandwiches, real New Mexican verde (stock-thinned and no pork), diner-style corned-beef hash, Italian ice, chicken croquettes (which I haven't found here yet), real Carolina tidewater barbecue (ditto) -- I get those calls all the time. Where can I find it? Do you know what they're doing here? Did you hear about the place that just opened over there? The foragers are out and about, always looking, always up for a crosstown drive if there's a chance it might lead to a lobster roll, a butter burger, a Rochester white-hot -- whatever they need that will let them, even for a moment, remember what it was like back home.

No TSF request ever involves Beluga caviar or the perfect $200 tasting menu. Those calls come in, too, but from people suffering from an entirely different disorder. TSF is about acclimation, and acclimation is about comfort, and comfort ain't about what you ate all bundled up in tuxes and trains at your wedding reception. It's about what you ate, sitting on the floor, on your first night in your first apartment. It's about the simplest things -- a bowl of soup, a piece of fried chicken, a cheesesteak, a can of black-cherry soda -- and how happy the simplest things can make us when we find them.

Leftovers: I've never heard white jackets talk about a restaurant the way they're talking about Sushi Sasa, which opened just last month at 2401 15th Street, kitty-corner from My Brother's Bar. Chef-owner Wayne Conwell's spot is really blowing away chefs and cooks -- guys known for their cynical, food-weary disaffection for anyone's food but their own. The partners from Swimclub32 -- Chris Golub, in particular -- love the place. Charlie Master from Brix has checked it out. And I've gotten calls from several more industry insiders, all raving about the ultra-traditional yet strangely modern Japanese food. "It's great," Conwell says. "We've got so many chefs from Denver. So many restaurant people from in town. All we need now is the non-restaurant people to start coming in."

Conwell is a veteran of both the nouveau and traditional Japanese culinary scene. He did eight years at Sushi Den, another five or six at Japon, and most recently spent almost a year in Philadelphia cooking with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto at his eponymous restaurant Morimoto. "I went out there because I wanted to see what the cool kids were doing," Conwell explains. And what did he learn? "How much time do you have?" he asks.

While Conwell mans the sushi bar, the galley is manned by his handpicked crew. The menu is all tastings and chef's choices, with flights upon flights of small plates, morsels, tidbits and teases. "I think that people don't appreciate traditional items in large quantity," Conwell says. By offering a lot of tastes, his kitchen can both protect the traditional Japanese style of cooking and inject some modern ingredients and preparations into the mix. The result is a board that showcases the best talents of a guy who learned his lessons everywhere he went.

Congrats are due to chef Ian Kleinman (of Nine75), who was inducted into the Art Institute of Colorado's Hall of Fame over the weekend. Fellow AIC alum Goose Sorenson (of Solera) is the only other Colorado chef to have been given the honor -- but unlike Kleinman, he didn't make a pulled-sugar Oompa-Loompa as the final project for his pastry class.

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Pho Fusion - Closed

8800 E. Hampden Ave.
Denver, CO 80231

303-843-6080

www.phofusion.com


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