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Room at the Inn

Veteran of kitchen wars: Tuan Lam gave Denver its first Vietnamese restaurant, T-Wa Inn. Now he's taken it back.

In prison, they say the quickest way to gain respect among the general population is to pick the biggest, meanest, ugliest guy in your block and, on your first day inside, beat him to death with a chair. Sure, you'll spend a few months in the hole, but this establishes you right off the bat as a no-nonsense kind of fellow, a gentleman of quick temper and ill humor. In short, no one to mess with.

Needless to say, with a new job and a whole new community of restaurants to explore, I've been fighting a similar temptation to get out there and bust a few kneecaps. And sitting in T-Wa Inn's mostly uninhabited dining room one recent Thursday night, with an absolutely uninspiring Vietnamese noodle bowl topped with sliced-pork egg rolls sitting half-eaten in front of me, I smelled blood in the water. My first -- my only -- impression that night was that this place was dying, being choked out by its own storied history. I'll admit that I gave serious thought to how entertaining it might be to deliver the coup de grace to an on-again-off-again Denver favorite, but in the end my better nature (which I've been meaning to have surgically removed for years) won out. Instead, I took a step back, put down the chair and dove deep into the menu and the mind of Tuan Lam, T-Wa's former and now current owner.

"This is international food," Tuan says. "This is my choice. I tell people, 'You do what you want; now I do what I want.'" Talking with Tuan, I know immediately that I like him. It doesn't change my opinion of that noodle bowl, but a half-hour on the phone convinces me that this guy has a passion for food and for pleasing his customers, and a great attitude about the role of ethnic cuisine. I ask him about his menu and whether he's slanting it toward milder American tastes, and he tells me that if I want traditional Vietnamese food, then I should order it that way. He says: "I tell people, 'This is America! Eat hamburgers! Eat spaghetti!' Learn new ways to make food." Tuan, for example, likes his food healthy, made without too much oil and with the freshest ingredients available. He doesn't like eating fish bones (in Vietnam, small fish are traditionally eaten whole), so he serves fillets, and he doesn't like steaming meat, so he uses the grill or pan instead. T-Wa's kitchen reflects these tastes.

"I'm better in the kitchen," Tuan says. Before, "I talk to anyone. Sometimes, I talk too much. Now, I spend 80 percent of my time in the kitchen and only come out if someone asks for me." He tells me that while many restaurants will prepare salads or noodles in great quantities to get ready for the lunch and dinner rush, he's now makingI them one at a time so that everything is controlled by his hands. "Now, no one can say to me, 'Tuan, is something changing at T-Wa again?'"

He's referring to his recent reacquisition of T-Wa after it was owned for more than a year by Vinny Tian, a former partner in King's Land Seafood Restaurant. When Tuan sold the place to Tian, he left behind a large and loyal clientele who'd loved T-Wa for years, even decades, but weren't crazy about the change in ownership. For a full fifteen minutes, Tuan tells me horror stories about the intervening months: unpaid bills, weekly price changes, fortunes spent in remodeling, a nightmare menu that swelled to somewhere around 300 dishes.

But when I ask him why, after selling the place and getting away from those problems, he decided to go back to T-Wa, he pauses for probably the first time in the conversation, then says simply that he was embarrassed by what had happened to his restaurant.

All history aside, though, it's what T-Wa's doing today that really matters, and that brings us back to my uninspiring noodle bowl.

If eating is an adventure -- and to me, it always is -- then that first dish was like standing at the arrivals gate of an unfamiliar airport at the beginning of a long journey. I was a little lost, a little confused, but mostly I felt like the food hadn't taken me anywhere. The dish was timid, for starters, and Vietnamese food should never be that. The bun (Vietnamese-style vermicelli noodles made with rice flour) were stiff and undercooked; the egg rolls were fried beautifully, so that the skins were crisp as pulled sugar, but they had been stuffed with a pork filling that showed none of the interplay of flavor, texture and heat that is the hallmark of good Asian cuisine. Couple that with a nuoc cham (the ubiquitous orange dipping sauce served with nearly all things Vietnamese) that was cloyingly sweet in all the ways it should have been sharp, and an appetizer plate of four plump fried dumplings crammed with a pork mixture identical to that of my entree (and also identical to what you find in a thousand Chinese buffets the world over), and I was ready to end my voyage of discovery right there. I could have simply paid my bill and walked out the door, never to return.  

The thing is, I'm stubborn. Like Tuan, I don't give up easily, and there were little things about T-Wa that had showed some promise. The soy sauce served with the fried dumplings, for example: It wasn't just some knock-off Kikkoman out of a jar, but rather a spicy-garlic house blend that had considerably elevated my unflattering opinion of the dumplings themselves. Also, on the two or three other occupied tables in T-Wa Inn's large, comfortable dining room, I'd seen dishes that certainly looked more interesting than mine. So I talked myself into trying T-Wa again.

And again.

And again.

If my initial meal at T-Wa had all the charm of a disappointing arrival in some exotic place, then my second -- a catfish in ginger sauce -- was like stepping out into foreign streets for the first time and getting mugged, beaten and rolled for my wallet. Nothing in the bland, workhorse preparation of the noodle bowl had prepared me for the assault and battery I experienced at the hands of that catfish. Expecting the same faintheartedness of flavor and forgoing the civilized decency of chopsticks, I dug right in with my fork, took a big bite and was treated to a sensation I can only describe as being hit in the mouth with a delicate, creamy-pink slice of pickled ginger wrapped around a tire iron. It was shocking, to say the least, -- but entirely my fault, not that of the kitchen.

The catfish in Vietnam are tiny little critters, eaten bones and all, but Tuan prefers to use American catfish fillets that he pan-fries, serves over salad greens, and tops with a potent mix of Japanese ginger, fine-shredded ginger with nuoc mam (a powerful, salty fish sauce, generally used as the base for making nuoc cham) and Vietnamese pickled ginger. When appreciated properly by a diner who isn't quite such an idiot as I am, the bite of the ginger together with the soft meat of the catfish, some white rice and cooling greens tossed with fresh basil, mint and cilantro make for a wonderful flavor combination. It's heavy, no doubt, and maybe not for the meek, but there's nothing hidden in this dish, no complexity beyond a mounting of spice upon spice as the different types of peppery-sweet ginger compete for dominance. Sometimes a cook has to forget subtlety, get right in there, and really pop your head off with the spirit of what he's trying to do.

Alternating bites between the catfish and an order of two huge spring rolls layered with sliced shrimp, vermicelli, bits of pork and a chiffonade of mint and cilantro, I pondered where the kitchen was coming from. How could one dish be so toothless and the next possessed of such a wicked bite? Although Tuan says he's still working on the noodle and rice bowls to get them back to where they were when T-Wa was the town's favorite Vietnamese restaurant (it was also Denver's first), I can't think that mine was bland by chance. Rather, it had to be by design, and an explanation for that is found on a map of Vietnam. Bun is a staple of the central areas of the country. Found everywhere, and in myriad incarnations, the rice noodle is peasant food, street food, just plain old everyday food; it's as omnipresent on the Vietnamese table as are corn flakes, spaghetti or mashed potatoes here. This wasn't a dish that was simple out of carelessness, but rather because it just is simple. Conversely, the catfish (along with about a hundred varieties of rice) is more identifiable with the southern Mekong Delta of Vietnam, and lends itself better to the heavier sauces and strong spices available in the tropical South.

Going even farther afield is the inclusion of some Thai in T-Wa's menu. For a little cross-border adventure, I tried the Penang beef, which was served with cooked vegetables (Vietnamese dishes feature mostly fresh veggies) in a light coconut-curry sauce. Although it was sweeter than I'm used to (as was almost everything I tried at T-Wa), it did have a nice sting at the end that got right up into your sinuses.

Vietnam has a legacy of French colonialism, too, and even though the French have been gone for half a century, their influence lingers in the cuisine. Tuan makes use of this history, as well, both in terms of working under the French canon of technique in his kitchen and in some menu items such as the soft-shell crabs: breaded, shells intact, with a light cornmeal crust, then fried gently and served whole to be eaten with carnivorous abandon.  

The French also inspired the meal with which I ended my voyage through Tuan's Vietnam. Among the chef's specialties is listed a humble roasted quail stuffed with crab, shrimp and spices, and it was here -- in this place, with this dish -- that I finally came to understand what Tuan meant when he was talking about his cooking. On one plate he'd managed to wed all the elements, all the cultures, all the decades and centuries of change that have come to define Vietnamese cuisine, into one seamless whole. The quail itself -- split at the breast and roasted until the skin was crisp and the meat so tender you could suck it off the bone -- was of French origin, rubbed down with a mix of spices that spoke distinctly of both the Mekong and Red River deltas, then stuffed with whole, grilled shrimp, backfin crabmeat and a subtle blend of European herbs. The bird was then set swimming in a wonderful dark, sweet sauce mellowed by the cooked carrots, peppers and other vegetables common in the Chinese-influenced Northern Highlands, and served with a mound of white rice, fresh whole herbs, greens and mung-bean sprouts. It was delicious. I loved it.

I now knew what I'd traveled all this way to find out. "It's international food," Tuan had told me. Not North Vietnamese or South Vietnamese, or even necessarily Vietnamese at all. It was food from everywhere, food from anywhere. Just good food, made by a kitchen that has learned the hard way over the past couple of years how important that one distinction really is.


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