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...
Pho Duy is the last restaurant in the noodle-shop triptych wedged into a diminutive strip mall between Kentucky Avenue on the north and a one-way street on the south that's lucky to even have a name (West Ford Place, for you cartography buffs). I'm confident in stating that nowhere else in this town will you find such a broad range of well-executed Asian flavors as at this trio: a near-perfect culinary tour of the Far East broken only by a Vietnamese acupressure studio. Pho Duy, like its neighbors Lao Wang Noodle House and J's Noodle Star Thai, is no stranger to best of lists and Internet accolades. And although many of the more successful restaurants on Federal have made cursory attempts at modernization (faux travertine tile, a new coat of paint), Pho Duy has embraced a simple, serene color palette and tasteful murals that serve as the backdrop for its stunning take on the humble bowl of noodle soup.
The parking lot is filled with a collection of Mercedes SUVs, Subarus, beat-up Camaros, and other vehicles representing virtually every price point on the spectrum. Diners inside the restaurant equally represent all walks of life: neighborhood families, tables filled with teenagers, elegantly dressed business associates, and maybe even a few stragglers wandering in clad in pajama pants and threadbare college hoodies. No matter the day of the week, Pho Duy is lively and bustling with a constant churn of customers. And they're all coming for the comfort and intimacy implied when you slurp noodles in the company of friends and strangers alike.
Pho Duy's menu is almost frustratingly simple; anyone looking for rarer or more exotic offerings than noodle bowls or rice plates with a standard selection of meats might be a little disappointed. Vegetarians will be pleased about the meat-free pho broth, egg rolls and spring rolls, while someone like me -- who only recently stumbled across the wondrous cornucopia of hu tieu noodle soup -- will have a little more to choose from.
But really, variety is often a signal for mediocrity; consider the Cheesecake Factory as a prime example. Pho Duy doesn't distract itself with dozens of variations on regional specialties, Americanized palate-pleasers or seldom-ordered ingredients that suffer from a lack of turnover. The cooks concentrate on doing one or two things exceptionally well -- and the results are obvious.
Mirroring the minimalist menu, the condiment offerings are sparse compared to the lineup at some other nearby pho shops. Amy and I received one plate of fresh garnishes to share between us, although the basil, saw leaf, sprouts and jalapeño were all crisp and elegantly presented in a tidy pile. But we didn't use even that much: For the first time in our history together, I watched Amy sample and then continue to eat her pho with rare steak without any additional accoutrements.
I only needed one spoonful of the rich broth to be convinced that she was right. While some pho broths taste like a beef bone or two were briefly dipped into the stock pot during simmering, Pho Duy's broth overwhelms with a primal, savory character that comes not from the overuse of spices but from piles of beef bones cooked for ages at a temperature low enough to keep the liquid clear while extracting every molecule of goodness. When you taste the best, you just know it. There's no hesitating, no hemming or hawing, no second doubts. You just nod and understand.
Amazingly, my hu tieu equaled the excellence of the pho. Pho duy's hu tieu comes with either beef broth (different from the pho broth) or seafood broth with either all seafood or a pork and seafood combo. My combination came with delicate slices of barbecued pork, wedges of Vietnamese meatball, rubbery fish balls, several quail eggs with luscious, still-liquid yolks, and some unfortunate strands of imitation crab meat (the tuxedo T-shirt of seafood). As I slurped my way through wheat flour noodles (more traditional with hu tieu, although rice noodles are also offered), a layer of chopped scallions, floating islands of caramelized shallots and fine slivers of raw white onion, all the other distractions melted away.
For those few minutes, the blaring Vietnamese pop music forced through fuzzy speakers, the tables of chattering teens, the restless toddlers, even the usually requisite side plate of garnishes all vanished into the background as my world shrank down to the size of a white basin filled with Pho Duy's finest. I forgot that the hot weather had made me dread the idea of a steaming tub of soup; I forgot that I had specifically ordered a salty lemonade (a good one, even) to combat that heat; I forgot that I'd eaten so many bowls of pho in the past few months that it had become as familiar to me as my mom's grilled cheese sandwiches.
What remained, even days after eating, is the memory of that first unadulterated spoonful as it hit my lips. On a street overrun by pho joints and somewhat lacking in the expansive ethnic variety of other parts of the metro area like Aurora, Pho Duy still manages to not only distinguish itself from its counterparts, but to prove itself equal to the fiery brilliance of J's pad Thai and the addictive crunch of Lao Wang's pan-seared pot stickers.
My goal is to someday hit -- in one continuous evening of starchy gluttony -- this South Federal trifecta to polish off a plate or bowl from each of these incredibly soul-satisfying restaurants.
For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.
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