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...
On a kiln-hot Denver day, hot enough to make the idea of soup seem more like a form of torture than sustenance, I realized that Pho 79 House of Vietnam stood before me as the next steamy stop on my Federal crawl. Even the restaurant's normally welcoming logo looked more like a raised middle finger topping a clenched fist than a wisp of steam rising from a bowl of pho. I've never understood the idea of consuming sweat-inducing foods -- whether packed with spice or just served piping hot -- to combat the withering effects of summer weather. I grew up in Texas, where summer camp counselors spiked the Kool-Aid with salt tablets and vinyl car seats presented a real threat of third-degree thigh burns. Air conditioning and Braum's milkshakes were modern solutions to replace the folk wisdom of perspiring to stay cool. With all this in mind, the call was easy: absolutely no pho would cross these lips, regardless of the primary culinary mission of the restaurant in question.
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I made this decision quickly, if not without a twinge of regret. After all, the noodle soup at Pho 79 has warmed my heart and stomach since I first met Amy, and an early date led us here in the midst of one of Denver's worst blizzard seasons. We've been regulars ever since; Amy has always ordered the pho with rare steak and brisket while I've generally satisfied my pork cravings with the even heartier bun bo Hue. But this time, we would break from tradition -- because Pho 79's menu contains a few hidden gems that don't include the promise of sweating through your clothes.
Since our first date during that frigid winter, Pho 79 has expanded and modernized the dining room and its décor. In the winter, the foyer serves as a humid transition while you shed layers of winter armor in a virtual rainforest of tropical plants (both live and artificial) and burbling fountains. Fortunately, the owners share a Texan's fondness for central air conditioning, so the billow of steam is replaced in the summer with a cool, inviting breeze. Regardless of the season, the waitstaff has always been prompt and professional, and occasionally even friendly.
So what does a heat-bludgeoned soul crave from a restaurant whose specialty involves raising a body's core temperature with tubs of hot broth? First things first: a glass of salty limeade, Vietnam's answer to Gatorade and its electrolyte-rich kin. I've had salty lemonade at a few pho shops around town and it always has a slight quality of furniture polish on ice. Lime seems to offer a better flavor profile to go with the salty-sweet combination that's uncommon in Western beverages.
Summer rolls also seemed like a natural choice, featuring firm shrimp and thin sliced pork with enough piggy flavor to stand up to the sweet, nutty dipping sauce. Summer rolls -- known as goi cuon -- rely on the fresh crispness of the vegetables and the expert touch of the cook doing the rolling. These were taut like drum skins and bursting with cool, crunchy veggies and generous portions of shrimp and pork.
We also shared plates of Vietnamese crepes (banh xeo) and another type of rice paper roll called banh cuon. Rice paper isn't exactly accurate as a description, since the wrappers are thicker and wetter than the summer roll wrappers. Banh cuon are made by steaming a thin layer of rice batter on a fine mesh cloth stretched over a simmering pot of water. These banh cuon were tender, glutinous and mild in flavor, allowing the scant filling of ground pork, minced onion and wood-ear mushroom to lend a homey, farmhouse quality. Half-moons of pork sausage (similar to the gio lua I sampled from Gio Cha Cali) decorated the plate and added extra meatiness. Not sure of the best way to attack this dish, I treated it like a composed salad, nipping bites of banh cuon in my chopsticks with a little sausage, shreds of basil and a finishing dip in the fish-sauce based nuoc cham.
Our banh xeo was shatteringly crisp around the edges and paved with shreds of pork and thin sliced shrimp cooked into the egg and rice-flour batter. Banh xeo is a great sharing dish; you can take turns tearing off bites of crepe and wrapping them with purple shiso, basil and bean sprouts in a roll of green leaf lettuce. The crepe came out of the kitchen sizzling hot, but the overall experience was almost as cooling and refreshing as those summer rolls, were it not for a slightly heavy taste of vegetable oil.
Some of the other diners stuck with their bowls of pho and the wisdom of their elders to combat the heat through perspiration. Luckily, Pho 79 has diversified from its basic offerings over the years to keep my soul warm without overheating the rest of me.
For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.
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