A friend just back from Vietnam has been recounting the mouthwatering food she enjoyed there: dishes that involved dozens of fresh, just-plucked-from-the-ground- or-ocean ingredients; abundant feasts that brought platter after platter of multilayered concoctions; snacks much more inventive and healthier than a bag of potato chips. All things, of course, that we'll never get to taste in this town. Still, just hearing about this stunning fare whet my appetite, so I set out to discover what I could in Denver.
Colorado Boulevard is a long way from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but just off this busy street, I found Saigon Terrace, a calm, unassuming little spot that's been serving Denver diners for nine years now. The interior is stark, adorned with nothing more extraordinary than pink tablecloths, and you can hardly get more than two words out of the shy servers. But they're welcoming and efficient, and always smiling.
That's probably because they get to eat here. I quickly discovered that the food at Saigon Terrace is fabulous. The good news started with our soft-shell crab ($12.95 for two) appetizer, correctly described on the menu as "the one you shouldn't miss." Served with a ginger-pumped nuoc cham that offered a gentle chile bite, the little suckers had been marinated in a sweet, vinegary liquid, then dredged in a thin batter that puffed up around the crab like a down-filled parka. The key was quick cooking at high heat so that the sweet meat stayed juicy and the oil didn't saturate the batter. This same technique helped make Saigon Terrace's egg rolls ($4.95 for three) a stellar version of the old standby. The salty ground pork inside did its bit, too, as did a thin layer of cabbage and a sweeter version of the crab's dipping sauce.
1550 South Colorado Boulevard
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Sunday.
Little House, 1140 West Littleton Boulevard, Littleton, 303-798-2333. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-9 p.m. Saturday
Like absolutely fresh ingredients, well- constructed sauces are a hallmark of Vietnamese cooking. At Saigon Terrace, everything we sampled -- even the noodle dishes that so often come swimming in the thinnest and least flavorful of liquids -- arrived in sauces whose broth bases had been double-cooked. That meant meats and vegetables had been boiled until their essences had leeched into the water, and then fresh meats and vegetables were added to the liquid to create the dish. And so the garlicky, butter-oily elixir that adorned the hot and spicy frog legs ($8.95) had a heady, concentrated flavor that first touched us with its sweetness, then slammed our tastebuds with a knockout chile punch. The frog meat -- remember, it tastes like chicken, if you like chicken that has just taken a dip in a lake -- was velvety soft and fresh, with cabbage and scallions providing a crunchy counterpoint. But we would have eaten anything covered with that sauce, the mere scent of which made us swoon.
The wine "vinaigrette" in our beef dish ($8.25) was another amazing blend, and the use of a decent vino kept the sauce from being too vinegary. Soft, paper-thin sheets of beef, along with fresh tomato and onion, were secondary to this luscious liquid. The sauce for the sautéed duck with ginger ($8.95) offered the ideal amount of ginger, a flavor that can quickly overwhelm but can also be too subtle. The duck was just right, too: big hunks of meat almost unnaturally tender, without a hint of greasiness. And the soft-noodle combination ($8.95) was a perfect example of a simple dish receiving the star-sauce treatment: a watery but pork-salty, onion-laced juice had soaked into the broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, shrimp and chicken and clung to every spaghetti-thin egg noodle.
Contrast the Saigon Terrace dining experience with the substandard fare we attempted to swallow at Littleton's Little House, a little house of culinary horrors that occupies a former Taco Bell. But exterior bathrooms are only the beginning of Little House's problems, which include less-than-fresh ingredients (some were dangerously past their prime); a young, chatty owner who didn't have his mind on the business at hand (although he was perfectly happy to share details of his personal life with customers); haphazard, often nonexistent service (the tables were sticky, and on our second stop, we actually walked around the dining room trying to find one that wasn't -- unsuccessfully). Granted, Little House has very friendly employees who seem genuinely eager to offer a good meal, but they don't appear to have the slightest idea how to accomplish that.
On our first visit, everything tasted fresh, but it all tasted strangely the same, with a black-pepper bite substituting for real flavor. The skimpy egg rolls ($5 for four) had cabbage filler inside their greasy shells; the grilled beef noodle bowl ($4.75) was dull; and the pork with salty and spicy sauce ($7.95) consisted of nothing but pork, a few tired, stringy scallion tops and thin, peppery liquid. If we'd never had Vietnamese food before, we might have thought this meal was okay -- and then never felt a need to eat Vietnamese food again. But since Denver has several excellent Vietnamese restaurants that serve addictive fare, and many more that are very good, this level of mediocrity was not acceptable.
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And then it sank lower. On a second visit, we seated ourselves at the least sticky table and started with spring rolls ($2.50 for two). Since there were three in our party, we appreciated the owner's thoughtfulness in sending a third on the house -- but didn't appreciate rice wrappers so dry they were hard to chew. We gulped them down with the help of lemonade ($2), which, though warm, was also wonderful, a flawless balance of sweet and sour with plenty of pulpy lemon. The glass came with a spoon so that we could keep the fresh-squeezed delight stirred.
On our first visit, Little House was out of the soft-shell crab ($9.95 for two); this time, we wished it were. The crispy crust was fine, but there was no mistaking the funky smell of too-old crab. Inside the hot soup pot ($14.95), we found more crab, this time claws cooked until their flesh had wrinkled; scallops the size and texture of pencil erasers; old, stringy cabbage and scallion pieces so poorly cut they looked like the remnants of another meal; and -- surprise -- mussels that tasted fine. The soup arrived in a Sterno-fired hot pot that roared until I started sweating and the liquid inside was in danger of disappearing altogether. Would that it had.
The ingredients in the soft rice noodles ($7.25) looked like they'd come from another pile of discards; the sauce was so bland we would have welcomed some black pepper. And while there was actual lemon flavor in the beef with lemon flavor ($7.95), the beef was tough and chewy, with only a few shards of wilted scallion greens for diversion.
Perhaps the folks at Little House should take a trip to Vietnam to experience true Vietnamese cooking. And at the very least, they could pick up a few pointers at Saigon Terrace.