Aurora's Havana Street is awash with some of the most diverse ethnic cuisine in the Denver metro area; the cultural landscape is primed with every kind experience, from fine-ish dining to lovable dives to mom and pop eateries from almost every nationality and culture: Ethiopian, Vietnamese pho, dollar-a-scoop Chinese, Mexican seafood, Cuban bakeries, and barbecue startup trucks. This stretch of semi-urban street makes for some colorful dining, so I'll be giving you my fitty-cent tour every week, complete with all the color, flavor and commentary of my ‘hood.
The unusually wet weather in Denver lately has brought with it “the plague” in the form of upper respiratory doom-viruses, one of which I contracted, and there was only one thing that could make me feel like a human again: a big-ass, steaming bowl of pho. And as luck would have it, Aurora has no shortage of choices; I landed at Pho 75, a modest noodle shop in a strip mall conveniently close to a small Asian market so I could have my healing-powered soup and avocado shake, then stock up on jars of kimchi and cases of orange Sac Sac drinks for the hellish days of moaning sickness.
The interior of Pho 75 has a weird utilitarian/cafeteria motif, punctuated with a handful of fake plants and one wall lined with porno mirrors, but I had a quiet table toward the back, an adorable teen male server, and the music floating out from the speakers was of the 1980s, saxophone-based, movie love scene variety, so fun to giggle at, but also easy to ignore. The menu was direct and uncomplicated (much appreciated whether I’m sick or well) and the dining room was decently busy for a weekday evening and bustling with large to-go orders being packed up and moved out the door by people who looked happy, hungry and not sick with runny noses and hacking coughs. I ordered shrimp and brisket spring rolls and an avocado shake to put some food in me quickly, but the rolls arrived promptly and the shake didn’t, because there seems to be an unspoken law in Vietnamese restaurants that if you order smoothie-things, they will make them whenever they feel like it, and you will be okay with that. The spring rolls were a bit lettuce-heavy and protein-light, but the leisurely avocado shake was pale, freezing, creamy and lightly sweet; I discovered these in college as the perfect foil for a hot, spicy, salty bowl of pho.
Spring rolls—light on the protein.
Like most folks, I have my very own way to season and decorate my pho. Adorable, the male server (who I noticed had anime hair and shot me sympathetic glances for being obviously under the weather) brought the customary oval plate of garnishes—piles of fresh purplish basil, saw-leaf herb (in case this leaf is unfamiliar, it’s in the coriander family, tastes like an earthier cilantro, and gives pho an extra bit of green and flavor) fresh, crispy bean sprouts and lime wedges. I ordered the bowl with well-done brisket and rare beef and Adorable brought it out in good time. I gently placed a fistful of bean sprouts in it, followed by two sprigs of basil, stems removed, all of the saw-leaf (torn into small pieces), and the juice of exactly three lime wedges. With the addition of two full bowl-circles of hoisin sauce, and one circle of Sriracha, it was now ready to eat.
The broth was well-made and had a hint of smoke and plenty of star anise — and the noodles were just right. Although the bowl was conservative with the protein slices, the brisket was moist, fatty and tender, and the rare beef was that lovely shade of pinkish-grey. This bowl of pho was what I desperately needed to temporarily diffuse the symptoms of the Denver spring plague, and during the fifteen minutes I savored every bite, I actually forgot I felt like the bottom of a dumpster. Never, ever doubt the magical restorative powers of pho when you are sick, because this stuff is like a delicious, hot, liquid salad that heals you from the inside out and should be added to every illness regimen like DayQuil, room-temperature 7-Up, and Netflix. Pho 75 was not the best nor the worst pho place I have ever eaten at, but it saved my life one bite at a time on this occasion.
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Every good pho joint has an illustration of a steaming bowl on the outside.