Pho Lee: So pho, so good for this Greenwood Village restaurant
Avocados used to be in the same class as pomegranates, hard to find in small grocery stores and displayed with growers' signs for how to slice and use them. These days, though, avocados are everywhere: forming beds for scrambled eggs, lining bruschetta, mashed with garlic, lime and cilantro in the ever-popular guacamole. Some 79 million pounds of the bumpy, greenish-black Hass ovals were consumed on Super Bowl Sunday alone, up from 8 million pounds in 2000. So what is it about the thought of avocados as dessert that turns people off?
See also: A closer look at Pho Lee
That's a question I've pondered ever since lunch with friends at Pho Lee, a recent entrant in a pho scene that's grown as crowded as a bowl of the meat-, sprout- and noodle-packed Vietnamese soup. I might as well have been asking vegans to share blood sausage, so vigorous were my lunchmates' "No, thank you"s when I extended a taste of my slushy, not-too-sweet avocado boba smoothie. Pho Lee isn't the first spot to put green, buttery avocados into a blender with ice, milk and condensed milk, nor is it the first to serve the resulting drink-cum-dessert with gummy tapioca pearls in a glass with whipped cream, a domed lid and an extra-wide straw. Boba smoothies have been around for years, and the fresh-avocado variety, along with dozens of powder-based blends in exotic flavors such as passion fruit and lychee, can be found up and down Federal Boulevard.
But the boba marketing council, if there is one, hasn't done as heroic a job at promoting this kind of smoothie as the Hass Avocado Board has its namesake (though apparently there's more work to do in the sweet department); hence the skepticism. Too bad for my friends. Like roasted cucumbers, which defy common cooking sense but nonetheless taste delightful, avocados whip up into a cold, creamy drink as irresistible as any Nutella-spiked milkshake.
The only glitch was timing. Despite the surprisingly busy lunch crowd — surprising only because of Pho Lee's location, which is buried at the heart of a convoluted strip mall, with no street visibility — the smoothie and my pho appeared together, mere minutes after I'd ordered them. And both were divas, threatening to storm off and take their charms elsewhere unless given full attention. Look at me! demanded the pho, launching into a dance of nuanced textures — the chewiness of raw beef, the snap of bean sprouts, the splash of hot broth, the squish of long rice noodles — so alluring it nearly made me forget the drink. Then the smoothie elbowed in, flaunting a delicate wisp of avocado flavor you'd hardly recognize from all those savory preparations. What to do? Let the soup cool, or the smoothie melt? Either way, one would be past its prime. After a few satisfying slurps, I pushed the soup aside; pho, I reasoned, would hold up better as a leftover than a melted, re-frozen, eventually thawed-out smoothie. And as I spooned up the sweet, delicious drink — slowly, because all those boba took a while to consume — I was reminded that it's fun to do dessert first every now and then.
With glass tops snug against cream tablecloths, red-and-ivory walls and an assortment of potted plants, Pho Lee resembles any number of Asian restaurants peddling pad Thai, lo mein and General Tso's chicken. The menu feels familiar, too, but for a different reason: Dung Anh Le, who launched Pho Lee early this winter with his wife, Phuong Nguyen, is the brother of Aaron Le. The latter owns Pho 95, a local pho temple if ever there was one, and Dung Le worked there for years. Overseeing this kitchen is Dung's mother-in-law, Quyen Nguyen, who spent nearly two decades at Pho Fusion and T-Wa Inn, Denver's oldest Vietnamese restaurant.
As at his brother's restaurant, it is pho that pulls most people through the door at Pho Lee, a fact easily verified by the deep bowls and picked-over plates of condiments at every table. Like its American cousin, chicken noodle soup, pho pleases everyone, from little girls twirling in the aisles (there's a dance shop next door) to co-workers getting a break from the office. In part, this is because the dish is utterly customizable. Aside from the noodles, which are always rice, and the broth, which is beef unless you order the vegetarian option, the dish is yours to tweak, with a list of 23 protein combinations (tendon, tripe, well-done brisket, etc.) and an array of fresh, spicy and crunchy toppings to either heap on or leave out. I like them all: fresh-squeezed limes, jalapeños, bean sprouts, Thai basil and little-known culantro torn from glistening stems. Don't be afraid to reach for the bottles of sweet hoisin and fiery sriracha to craft a dipping sauce for whatever meat you've chosen, or to squirt directly into the bowl, as one server told me he likes to do, "if the broth is not enough for you." And it may not be: The broth is pale in both color and flavor, perhaps because someone took a lighter hand with the ginger, cinnamon and star anise commonly added to the pot.
Despite his restaurant's name, Le has designed a menu that also features a wide selection of steamed rice and rice noodle dishes. Most are Vietnamese in origin, but some are Thai, and while they might appeal to those tired of pho (though I can't imagine ever tiring of the dish), they're not where Pho Lee's heart is. A vegetable-heavy lemongrass sauté seemed devoid of its signature ingredient. Drunken noodles were light on chicken and even lighter on flavor. And the coconut curry would have benefited from more sauce covering the strips of tofu, carrots, celery and onion.
If you want to branch out from pho, opt instead for the stuffed chicken wings, which are more like fried, skin-on chicken rollatini harboring a fat filling of rice noodles, pork, mushrooms and mint than their bar-food name suggests. And by all means, share an order of Vietnamese egg rolls. If you haven't tried this kind of egg roll before, you'll be thankful that Le's wife, who runs the front of the house, happily teaches hesitant first-timers that the whole lettuce leaves, slivered cucumbers and posies of fresh basil and mint aren't intended as garnish or salad, but as a wrapper for the rolls. Since I ate my first Vietnamese egg roll in Europe twenty years ago, I've never understood why chefs from other countries don't borrow this technique more liberally.
Even the most ardent pho-natic might want to share a plate of grilled meats, which come with rice or noodles and offer a nice contrast to the often raw meats found in the soup. The combination plates are popular, mounded with enough beef, pork, chicken, shrimp and egg rolls to serve a group family style, but you might find everyone reaching for the same thing: the thinly pounded, well-trimmed marinated beef. If so, order the grilled beef by itself next time, along with those egg rolls and a big bowl of pho. And at the end of the meal, as you're asking for takeout containers to dump those extra noodles, sprouts and herbs into, don't forget to order an avocado smoothie. Unless, that is, you've already decided to enjoy dessert first.
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