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...
Tuesdays are quiet days, barely even there in terms of days with defined personalities. Tuesday is the day you forget what day it is before it's even started, when you lay in bed trying to remember if you're supposed to be getting ready for work or if it's a weekend or if maybe you're just still dreaming. The hours blend together and people drift past in a blur; there's not even the resentment that comes with a Monday, much less the anticipation that builds through Wednesday and Thursday. Your car pilots itself home in the evening; the TV turns itself on. Maybe it rains, but only a slow, tepid rain without drama or force. And dinner? Federal Boulevard may be a constant conveyor belt of chaos and motion, but many of the restaurants are stuck in a permanent Tuesday, where business trickles in and the waiters sit near a window chatting with each other between occasional food and drink orders. The T-Wa Inn is a Tuesday kind of place, its pace established over the decades by a steady trickle of loyal customers and curious newcomers.
Tuesday evening ushered us into T-Wa and stayed for dinner and coffee, where it felt comfortable and welcome in an atmosphere that's equal parts stage set just after the curtain falls and wan elegance like a grand but weathered hotel that's fallen off the main tourist circuit. The cavernous ceiling space and all its ductwork have been painted black while pendant fixtures and string lighting add warmth to the booths and archways between the three main dining rooms. Rows of champagne bottles and enormous glazed urns add to the feeling that echoes of celebrations or New Year's festivities had just recently faded away.
Our dinner wasn't a celebration, but just a break from monotony -- a way to add a little adventure to an otherwise dull day, a minor victory over the forces of inertia. The waitress played along, engaging in small tales about the dishes we chose and taking our picture for us as if we were on vacation, or maybe having a farewell meal before embarking on a long voyage home.
The preparations and presentations at T-Wa reflect the refinement somehow captured in surroundings elevated only slightly above its Federal counterparts. An order of bun bo Hue came with a ladle so we could serve ourselves smaller bowls rather than plunging in to the typical expansive basin of broth and noodles. The chef's interpretation of the dish left out the offal -- generally pork hocks and cubes of congealed blood -- and bones of the street-vendor version, and relied instead on a subtle broth and thin slices of just-chewy brisket. The buzz of star anise and a little zing from a slick of chile oil were still there, but the lustiness of less restrained recipes was pushed well below the surface.
The menu still captures the best exotic qualities of Vietnamese cooking. Strange and wonderful lollipops of shrimp paste go from tidy but playful appetizers to flat-out fun if you take a moment to suck the juice from the sugar-cane skewers. Fresh and crunchy lettuce and herbs highlight the sweet shrimp and light char from the grill. A platter of "old-fashioned" spicy pork (thit heo kho tieu) demonstrate more European technique with an expertly sauced mound of tender stir-fried pork that offered a hint of sweetness and miles of deep, meaty flavor.
Old-world touches like a complimentary first course of hot and sour soup and personalized coffee service of some of the best Vietnamese coffee I've had reinforced the aura of another time. The simplest dessert of bananas fried with a tempura-like batter and dressed with a few chopped peanuts and the lightest sprinkle of sugar worked almost like an after-dinner cheese course instead of the cloying confection it could have been.
Although the dining room was all but empty, I had no doubt the service would have been as warm and authentic on a busier night. But our dining companions were only the ghosts of previous Tuesday evenings, who seemed content to fill themselves with the aromas of our soup and coffee. The shadows of more boisterous days may linger in the corners of the T-Wa Inn, but the palpable presence of hospitality can't be vanquished.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.