Thirty-two steps is all it takes to get from Vietnam to Italy, Saigon to Rome, New Orient to Viaggio Italian Trattoria. Thirty-two steps if you've got legs like mine, probably fewer if you're in a hurry. And if it's raining, you won't even get wet.
Strip-mall dining is one of the minor miracles in the Denver scene. In this city, perhaps more than anywhere else in America's middle West, a sentence that uses "strip mall" and "restaurant" does not invariably include "suck." Sure, we have dead-end hellholes housed behind peeling facades in gravel-lot nowheres, addresses that have changed hands and nationalities more times than can be counted, joints where takeout Chinese food comes out tasting like oregano and rancid fryer oil left over from the Italian pizzerias that were housed in these same spots two weeks ago, and dim-witted suburban and exurban pod-cafes where a hundred sins against world cuisine are committed nightly. But there are many good strip-mall restaurants here, too.
Entrepreneurial spirit, immigration, bravery and an aching need for some people to recapture the flavor of their past and share it with their neighbors have fueled a wild and continuous real-estate boom in strip-mall and shoppette properties, turning entire Denver neighborhoods into experiments in speculative geography -- new frontiers where Russia and Korea share a common border, where the Himalayas rise over Southern India and typhoons of momo and samosa rain from the sky, where liquor stores and biker bars sprout on the left bank of the Seine, and Northern Italy is just a couple dozen paces from the heat and lemongrass breezes of Vietnam.
I don't know how Denver got so lucky. Maybe some mom-and-pop restaurant guide suggests that opening next to a cell-phone store or after-market car shop is good luck. Or maybe it's simply that there's so much cheap space available in strip malls. In Aurora, in Glendale, in north Denver and all along South Federal, shoppettes and plazas boil with openings and closings and brushfire border wars of every conceivable pairing. In some, China beats out Mexico even though Mexico is offering a tamale lunch, plus drink, for $2.99. In others, India wins out over Israel and Korea invades Russia, only to be devoured in a pincer move of sushi restaurants and old-Sov bakeries. In ten-unit properties along Iliff and Havana, five of the suites are restaurants (not counting the Starbucks on the corner) offering seven or eight cuisines, since the Thai place will inevitably have sweet-and-sour chicken on the menu and the Korean barbecue a sushi bar.
But in the 10000 block of East Iliff, the action -- this aggressive rejiggering of culinary cartography, this hot war of dumplings versus cannoli -- takes a different tack. Because while I can go from Southeast Asia to an Italian trattoria in just 32 steps, both restaurants are under the command of just one woman: Sue Smith.
Smith is a veteran with better than twenty years at New Orient and almost fifteen at Viaggio. She's not a cook -- at least, she wasn't when she started -- but rather a businesswoman with an MBA and a head for numbers who saw a future in restaurants. She picked up New Orient from a friend whose books she was doing when that friend wanted out of the business, then opened Viaggio a half-dozen years later. And while Smith has closed a few restaurants in her time (the deVine Cafe, which served Southwestern food on East Colfax, and more recently, Oodles on South Pearl, where the noodle joint has been replaced by Black Pearl), two decades on the front lines is admirable, just shy of astounding. The food industry is not kind to sprinters. Flashes in the pan burn out fast, and success can sometimes be judged simply by stamina.
With New Orient and Viaggio, Smith presents a united front of Vietnam and Italy, separated by just four doors. From the parking lot, I can see Korean barbecue on Smith's left flank, a Middle Eastern grocery and faux-Irish pub just around the corner, more Vietnamese and more Korean, with China and Hawaii not far off. A Fazoli's outpost just died at the corner of Iliff and Parker; a Tony Roma's bit it not long ago right up the street. Those chain closures were victories, but victory is fleeting. There's always tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
And tonight. At Viaggio on a weeknight, the dining room is empty. There's one waitress, one cook, both of them lounging around the erratically stocked bar at the back of the small, square space, just waiting for something to do. They're happy to see me walk in, and spring into fussy action immediately -- the cook retreating into the back, the waitress offering me any seat in the twenty-table dining room, bringing fresh bread, cold butter, a plate of oil and balsamic, a menu, water and a large glass of cheap Chianti, which is the only way that Chianti should ever be served: fast, cheap, and in great volume.
I skip the bruscetta in favor of crostini smeared with goat cheese and topped with caramelized onions, then wait for my panzanella. Although the bread salad is a rarity in Denver, it was almost a staple on the coasts until Dr. Atkins made ordering it (and nearly everything Italian) tantamount to suicide. The basic recipe calls for cubed bread -- generally leftovers -- thrown together roughly with olive oil, salt and pepper, onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes and basil by a smart cook who hates waste. At Viaggio, there are romaine hearts as well, which is a nice touch. As good as this salad is, though, the Caprese -- mozzarella, slices of tomato and a romaine salad drizzled with sweet balsamic vinegar -- is awful. For reasons I can't fathom, the cheese tastes sour and briny, almost like a soft, mushy Romano, and the flavor hangs in the back of my throat like bile until I wash it away with a second glass of wine.
The waitress asks if I want the salad boxed and I say no, make some excuse, pay my bill and leave.
Thirty-two steps later, I am at New Orient, eating one of the best curries I've ever had. It is so simple -- just sliced chicken, cubed potatoes with the skins on, a couple of discs of carrot and rice -- but swimming in a beautiful, smooth gold sauce flecked with red pepper. Sweet-hot and earthy, the curry is almost nutty like a Thai massamun, but thicker and without the wicked napalm kick. It coats my mouth, then vanishes; it's powerful enough to stand up to the rice's starch and reflexively addictive -- I eat half of the dish without pausing, then greedily dispose of the second half, chasing the surprising depth and flavors of the first. When it's gone, I'm sad -- pissed off that I'm full, because all I want is more.
I go back to Viaggio on a quiet Monday when New Orient is closed. Forgoing the left side of the menu (the trattoria standards: fettuccine with gorgonzola, simple angel hair with fresh tomatoes, minestrone served in huge white bowls, and pizzas that are great when they're hot out of the oven -- all crisp, greasy crust that crunches like a butter-glazed pastry and cheese that stretches two feet -- but terrible cold) in favor of the computer-printed insert that the waitress (same waitress) explains is the cook's (same cook's) new menu. With everything I order, she compliments me on my taste and genius. Usually I hate that. Here she really seems to mean it -- because when I'd ordered that Caprese, she hadn't said a word.
I have black mussels in a white-wine sauce spiced with garlic, reddened with tomato and laced with chiffonade basil. The shellfish are fresh and sweet (good luck on a Monday) -- not perfectly cooked, because they're a little soft and a little salty, but close. The middle of the bowl is set with a fat slice of toasted French bread, like an altar on which are laid bits of clam, minced garlic and streamers of basil. The bread has soaked up the best essences of the broth, mellowed it, almost filtered it (a great trick not often seen around Denver's strip-mall Italian trattorias). But the broth is delicious on its own, made with cheap wine but perfect in situ and lent depth by the herbs, the garlic, the sweetness of the mussels poached in it.
This kitchen makes all its ravioli by hand, and slow turnover in the dining room forces the cook to make all the sauces à la minute. The flavors can be strange, since the menu is almost fusion, a complicated Italian-Southwestern-Asian synthesis of green-chile lasagna, grilled salmon dressed with a sauce of roasted peppers and pecorino, veal roulades served with red-onion tempura, and angel hair pasta tossed with oyster mushrooms. Take this cook, put him in a starched white jacket and throw him behind the line at La Maison de BlahBlah, and he'd likely get kicked around for such combinations. But on the front lines of the strip-mall war, in a little room so far off the beaten path, his work comes off almost like revelation -- not always smart, not always good, but definitely engaging, with a couple of eureka! moments along the way. Who knew that roasted green chiles, saffron and a near-classic French sauce moutard could work together? They do in Viaggio's mustard chicken, even though the chicken is cooked on skewers like yakitori without the teriyaki, strong with the taste of char, and served with asparagus simply because half of the menu is served with asparagus.
I eat lemon sole stuffed with "sweet lobster" (probably crayfish, I think), baked in a brown crab sauce sparked with saffron and bits of roasted apple, served over handmade mushroom ravioli and topped with asparagus. This dish reminds me why I search out these strip-mall places: It's fantastic -- shamelessly, guiltlessly bizarre, and unlike anything I would ever be offered by a kitchen that knows better than to combine lobster and crab and sole and fruit and mushrooms all on one plate, and because it is served so proudly in a portion so large that I can only eat half.
New Orient has a new (ish) menu insert, too. On another night, I pay seven dollars for the lobster-stuffed dumplings and have to force myself to eat them. They taste like they're stuffed with canned tuna and are served on a chipped, cracked plate. This is a far cry from the delight of that curry a few days ago, but I brace myself with fried Vietnamese egg rolls that taste just like the wild-mushroom mille-feuilles served downtown in those temples of haute Froggery, vermicelli twirled through a sharp bowl of fish sauce, and big chunks of beef, marinated and grilled and sweet. My plate of pork chops, sliced and wrapped around the bodies of gigantic shrimp, topped with what I can only guess is a nuoc cham rémoulade, is a marvel -- as rough and rustic as anything in the classical French-Vietnamese canon, but cooked so perfectly that the chops don't even need toothpicks to hold them together.
Strip-mall dining in a city as explosively diverse as Denver can be magic; the simplest things and the strangest things -- a stuffed sole, a pork roulade, green chiles and fettuccine -- can sneak up on you and take your head right off. You don't anticipate such a meal, but when you stumble upon it, the surprises, both good and bad, make the meal worthwhile. After all, the little victories, the small defeats, the occasional flashes of left-field genius are what take you from Vietnam to Italy, from Freaktown to Tumsville, from the best curry in the city to the worst mozzarella ever, all in the space of just 32 steps.
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