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...
With the space that previously housed Pho 95 still vacant, I've now covered every full-fledged restaurant on the block of Federal Boulevard between Mississippi and Tennessee. That's one full-service Vietnamese restaurant, two pho houses, a banh mi sandwich joint, and a Chinese barbecue specializing in whole duck and pig. Along the way, I've also stopped in for some fresh duck eggs at the New Saigon Market and made a couple of questionable driving decisions both entering and exiting the strip-mall parking lot. But there are also a couple of places on the east side of Federal that, while not exactly restaurants, still serve up house-made items to-go that could easily fill a picnic basket or serve as the basis for some traditional Vietnamese recipes. The one that piqued my curiosity is Gio Cha Cali; it's a little bodega that peddles a variety of steamed and fried sausages and dumpling-like snacks variously wrapped in banana leaves, tin foil or plastic wrap.
Gio Cha Cali isn't much to look at, inside or out. Most of the food items are laid out bake-sale style on a couple of tables pushed together and covered with a thin tablecloth, or else stacked in neat bundles on storage shelves straight from Home Depot. A few refrigerated items and canned beverages fill a display case against one wall. Small laminated cards give descriptions in Vietnamese and (fortunately) English of the tightly wrapped cylinders and disks that are otherwise recognizable only by colored ribbons trussed around many of the items.
Before I entered the place, I knew I would be plunging into the deep end of ethnic cuisine here in Denver, so I did a little research (meaning that I Googled, Youtubed and Wikied every recipe, ingredient and video demo I could find) in hopes that it would help me recognize the names and appearance of some of the food. The most important fact I stumbled across is that wherever you see the phrase "gio cha," you'll find sausage, or what may more appropriately be called pork roll. Places that sell gio cha will generally also sell different varieties of banh, which translates roughly as "cake." But the word banh can be used as a descriptor for foods as vastly different as dense and familiar wheat-flour baguettes (banh mi) and thin sheets of rice paper (banh trang). The common theme seems to be food made from flour doughs or batters, whether a French-influenced sandwich, a steamed glutinous rice dumpling or a pan-fried crepe.
I tried to balance my choices between rice-based and meat-based options, but I wasn't really sure what I'd ended up with until I got home and unwrapped everything. My choices included banana-leaf wrapped banh Tet and banh gio, foil wrapped gio lua sausage, a disk of cha bo tieu, and a Styrofoam tray of banh khot -- miniature shrimp crepes I'd fallen in love with at Vietnam Grill across the street.
The pyramidal banh gio contained a glutinous rice dumpling filled with ground pork and sliced mushroom. It jiggled a little like extra-firm jelly as I cut through the smooth layer of rice dough into the moist filling, which was mildly seasoned and homey, with the flavors of my Ukrainian grandmother's kitchen: salt, pepper, garlic, and not much else. The flavor of the banh Tet was much more exotic, with a grainier rice layer surrounding mung bean paste and shredded pork. The rice in this roll was so sticky that it took considerable effort to remove all the banana-leaf fibers, and even more effort to slice the roll into disks without mangling the whole thing. But the earthy flavor of the mung beans and the slightly fatty pork shreds came together to form a chubby, hearty and rustic version of a sushi roll, especially when dipped in a little fish-sauce-based nuoc cham.
The gio lua pork roll and cha bo patty also seemed familiar, despite their odd appearance. I've had slices of pork loaf in various Vietnamese noodle bowls, but when eaten plain their seasoning and texture instantly brought me back to the little fried patties of Ukrainian sausage my dad would make as samples to ensure the spices were right before stuffing the casings. The gio lua, although much leaner than its European counterparts, exuded the unmistakable garlic aroma of my family's farmhouse sausage. The cha bo -- deep-fried rather than wrapped and boiled -- had a chewy skin and a mild center riddled with pungent flecks of black pepper.
Even the banh khot from Gio Cha Cali had touches of my grandmother's cooking. Unlike the same dish from Vietnam Grill, these little rice-flour cups were filled with sautéed diced onion in addition to shrimp. The fried shell of the banh khot topped with those onions offered a flavor and texture surprisingly similar to pan-fried pierogies that Grandma would slather in ladles-full of soft-cooked onion. It really made me wonder how these would taste with a dollop of sour cream.
Gio Cha Cali may seem a little foreign and intimidating to those of us who haven't been exposed to this type of Vietnamese cooking, but most of the flavors are simple and familiar. The sausage is a little spongy -- even bouncy -- due to the fine grind of the pork, the addition of baking powder, and the low fat-to-meat ratio, but the use of fish sauce is restrained and no other exotic spices are added. And dumplings are dumplings the world round: steamed, toothsome goodness with a little surprise in the middle.
For a more complete Vietnamese-themed Federal Boulevard excursion, get to Gio Cha Cali early before it runs out of the best items, then take a short detour to Lollicup just a few doors down for a boba smoothie. Safe and familiar? Not even close: It's a glimpse into the fun and goofy side of Asian convenience food, complete with cartoon animals, bright pastels and overpoweringly fruity aromas.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.