In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
I may have previously commented on the generally run-down condition of strip malls and shopping centers along Federal Boulevard. I may have even pointed out what I considered, at the time, the most derelict and depressing. Even Brentwood Plaza at Evans and Federal, one of the more spiffed-up rows, currently features a children's dental clinic with a fractured façade propped up by two-by-fours, on the verge of collapse with a jagged crevice in the stucco awning, as if after a low-grade temblor. So it is not without careful consideration that I state that the Regis Square plaza is definitely the gloomiest, loneliest, most sad-sack and abandoned row of storefronts along the entire nine-mile drag that spans Denver city limits. What better place, then, to find a hidden gem like Thai Bao Vietnamese Restaurant? Because, after all, I'm not searching for the best parking lots or the most dazzling architecture; I'm just looking for some good food.
The interior of Thai Bao -- a name that may bring the cuisine of another Asian country to mind -- rises marginally above the exterior, with shades of green starting in pale sea-foam walls, graduating to malachite linoleum paneling and ending with hunter tabletops giving a calming feeling of being underwater. Panels with mother of pearl peacocks and the by-now familiar scene of eight galloping horses round out the décor. But the overall impression is of a clean, tidy and well-tended dining room with spotless table settings and flourishes of elegance. Like many other restaurants along Federal, economy trumps flair, but fastidiousness is always a promising design theme.
I've been sampling banh xeo -- often referred to as a Vietnamese crepe or pancake -- as a litmus test for those Vietnamese kitchens that offer the dish. Having attempted to create banh xeo at home, I understand the light touch it takes to turn out a thin, toothsome and delicate envelope of rice flour and egg inlaid with shrimp and pork and loaded with bean sprouts that maintain their crunch within the steamy interior. Thai Bao's kitchen did a nice job; even the best banh xeo are a touch oily (all in the service of releasing from the pan and crisping the edges), but an ample pile of shiso, cilantro and mint cut through the fat as I stuffed wedges of the crepe into my lettuce wraps.
Amy and I were both interested in duck dishes, but our server -- the daughter of the chef -- informed us that they only make their duck salads and noodle soups from fresh duck, which is currently out of season. Although a little disappointed, it's refreshing to hear that the seasons are honored in small kitchens that could easily instead rely on the deep freeze.
Amy switched her order to lemongrass shrimp, while I went with bun bo nuong cha gio -- wiggly rice noodles served dry beneath grilled beef, fresh herbs and a chopped egg roll. Drizzled in a mild nuoc cham, the thinly sliced beef sang with a bold marinade and perfect char. I'm a chile addict, so traditional or not, I also added a few squirts of Sriracha sauce.
Amy's shrimp needed no accessorization. Wok-seared shards of red pepper added rising heat to the intensely lemongrass-infused shrimp coated in a brown sauce that balanced the heat with just a touch of sweetness.
While we finished up our lunch, I talked to our server about their specials and their customer base. Thai Bao is miles away from the newly designated Little Saigon business district, the stretch of Federal between Mississippi and Alameda that's home to a bustling community of shops, restaurants and, just behind those, neighborhoods of Vietnamese families. Still, she told us, families make the trek north for special occasions because Thai Bao has earned a reputation for serving the best goat hot pot in town. It's the chef's only hot pot and one he returned to Vietnam to master, visiting multiple kitchens there to glean their secrets.
Since this dish is one of the most stunning, unique and satisfying bowls of food I've had in the Vietnamese realm of recipes, I'm giddy with the thought of returning with friends to indulge in a simmering pot of slow-cooked goat with taro, lotus root, fresh greens and noodles.
Back outside, I circled the parking lot for other signs of life. A windowless Mexican dance club loomed over one stretch of walkway; Norteño music blared from a boot shop featuring the pointiest toes in town. A concrete light post anchor, presumably improperly installed, had listed severely to one side and embedded itself halfway into the asphalt as if it had fallen from the sky. Here, behind fast food drive-throughs and crumbling curbs, the smell of good cooking still managed to make its way streetward.
On Federal, though, that's not a surprise -- it's the norm. It's just a matter of keeping an open mind and certainly an alert eye -- momentarily glancing away from the obstacles -- toward the telltale signs.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.