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...
Saigon Bowl (Dong Khanh) Restaurant in the Far East Center represents not only one of the city's best, but possibly the last Vietnamese restaurant on my quest for good food along Federal Boulevard. North of here, tacos, tortas and burritos make a resurgence, along with American burger joints, steakhouses and diners. I've eaten at so many Vietnamese places lately that I'm beginning to miss the call of the corn tortilla, but until I cross Alameda, I'm still going to wallow in the bright and fresh mounds of herbs; the deep, complex broths and sauces; and the nearly infinite variety possible in the simple combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy that makes Vietnamese cuisine profoundly sophisticated while still grounded in humble roots.
Take, for example, a cold duck and cabbage salad mounded in defiance of gravity and laced with basil and a few other crunchy salad standards (like -- in my mind -- completely useless slivers of cucumber). But deeply caramelized, melting bits of onion lurked beneath a layer of chopped peanuts, waiting to add French flavors of the deglazed sauté pan that turned the dish suddenly homey thanks to the onion's affinity for duck, that porkiest of birds. The dressing -- sweet and fishy -- coated my fingers as it soaked into the puffed rice crackers I used to build mini duck salad tostadas.
Despite several months of practice rolling various food items into lettuce leaves, my wife and I still have less dexterity than the average Vietnamese toddler, who by three or four years of age can probably roll tight cigars of noodle, pickled carrot, cilantro and the main item -- egg rolls, banh khot, grilled shrimp paste or what have you -- into what for me are wholly intractable lettuce leaves that always tear and split in just the wrong way. We selected grilled shrimp wrapped in thin slices of marinated beef as the star of our disheveled wraps. Perfectly charred but still tender from the marinade, the wrapped shrimp had so much savory character that they couldn't be defeated by my inept manhandling. I finally managed one passable roll that didn't unravel in my death grip or in my attempts to dip it in the bowl of delicately spiced nuoc cham.
Even the simple bi cuon spring rolls provided a curious combination of shredded pork skin and toasted rice powder. The texture of the rubbery strands of skin coated in crunchy rice dust has no analogy in Western cooking. But texture aside, the flavors came together like fresh sausage: mildly meaty, toasty and earthy, rather than vivid with the garden freshness of typical spring rolls stuffed with lettuce, herbs and shrimp.
All of west Denver must have shown up to send me off on the next leg of my journey with joy and energy; despite it being a Monday evening, Saigon Bowl was packed and hopping. Our waitress was even a little taken aback, remarking "busy, busy!" as she cleared the last of our plates. Maybe it was just a restless city getting out and about after a week of miserable flooding and forced seclusion, but I'm glad the night was celebratory, rather than shrouded in the awkward silence of an empty dining room.
Here are a few things that I will miss about the Vietnamese restaurants of South Federal: efficient service from waiters who materialize with trays food and beverages almost before you even order; the odds and ends of animals that take up little space on American menus --hocks, hearts, liver, tripe, blood, tendons and tongue; herbs and other greens whose names are seldom even translated into English but whose pungent, bitter and spicy notes keep the palate lively when sampling multiple dishes; cool and sweet smoothies whether tart, rich, earthy, tropical or just plain weird; fusion cuisine at its best -- the kind born of necessity and practicality. And one other thing: the genuine gratitude expressed by owners and hosts whose smiles show they appreciate every warm body who lays down a few dollars for food their kitchen has toiled over and perfected.
Things I won't miss? Sliced cucumber.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.