Denver loves pho. That much is obvious when you drive down Federal Boulevard or Havana Street and see that certain Vietnamese noodle houses are packed every night of the week; further afield, pho houses keep popping up in shopping centers in Longmont, Castle Rock and everywhere between. Part of the appeal of Vietnam’s number-one culinary export lies in its unerring formula: a base broth with a few simple vegetables, a tangle of thin noodles and your choice of a variety of meats, all buried under a mound of fresh herbs and bean sprouts. And while there are almost as many numbered options on each pho menu as there are pho restaurants, giving us a feeling of control, there’s actually very little variation, especially among the city’s top purveyors. Pho is the General Tso’s chicken or the California roll of the 21st century; it has become an easy, go-to meal that feels exotic but in fact is one of the safest ways to explore the foodways of another culture.
Most pho shops tout a few other menu choices: bun bowls with rice noodles and grilled meats, rice plates with similar toppings, some spring rolls and egg rolls. But there’s not much adventure in those dishes, either, even if the bright flavors of basil, lime and lemongrass make them hard to pass up. Still, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some dishes worth exploring, lurking in the chef’s specials or on page fourteen of a fifteen-page tome that passes for a menu. And these aren’t “scary” dishes filled with organ meats or other unfamiliar proteins, but rather soups, salads and stir-fries that offer the same balance of comfort and intrigue as our beloved pho. Here are three favorites:
1) Mi Quang at Thuan Viet
945 South Federal Boulevard
Thuan Viet opened earlier this year in the space that Pho Duy had occupied for decades before moving next door into a larger, more modern space. Thuan’s specialty is bun bo Hue, a noodle soup that, when prepared traditionally, can be a little intimidating, with cubes of cooked pork blood, whole pork trotters and a heady broth strongly redolent of pig. But this quiet spot also prepares quite a few other regional Vietnamese noodle-and-broth combos, including mi Quang, a specialty of the Quang Nam region of Vietnam.
As Thuan serves it, mi Quang is a superlative soup for lovers of variety: Sliced pork, chunks of chicken on the bone, shrimp in the shell, quail eggs and a wedge of Vietnamese sausage called cha all vie for space atop broad rice noodles tinted vivid yellow with turmeric. The condiment plate comes with mint, rau ram (an herb with a flavor similar to mild cilantro), lime, sliced jalapeño and shredded banana flower and cabbage. Served with a crunchy black-sesame rice cracker, mi Quang offers more variety of texture and flavor than pho, in a richer, meatier broth.
Over at Pho Duy, the parking lot is packed and every table is filled with guests who keep their heads down, slurping noodles and broth. But Thuan has yet to find its customer base, which means that you can skip the crowds next door and enjoy a wonderful meal without much distraction, other than a little Michael Jackson on the sound system or Japanese anime — subtitled in Vietnamese — playing on the dining room’s lone TV.
2) Muc Don Thit at Saigon Terrace
1550 South Colorado Boulevard
Seafood and meat have a longstanding affinity that spans many cultures: The Portuguese crave clams and sausage, Texans love surf and turf, and Popeye’s serves up fried chicken and shrimp. Vietnamese cuisine pairs squid with seasoned ground pork in a dish that’s often called muc nhoi thit (stuffed squid) but that Saigon Terrace calls muc don thit on its chef’s-special roster.
My first encounter with Vietnamese cooking of any kind was a dish of stuffed squid at the long-departed T-Wa Terrace off Arapahoe Road and I-25. The whole squid body was stuffed with pungent sausage (which I later learned owed its ripe flavor to fish sauce) and then sliced into rounds atop sauced noodles.
Saigon Terrace displays some of the Chinese influence on Vietnamese culinary evolution with a stir-fried version of the dish that combines artfully sliced vegetables, impossibly juicy mushrooms and cup-shaped slices of squid stuffed with ground pork — all swimming in a sauce that would be perfectly at home in a Chinese takeout joint.
Saigon Terrace feels like a family-run operation. During a slow, pre-dinner period, an older gentleman sings Vietnamese tunes quietly to himself as he folds napkins at the front of the dining room, while a small group of employees enjoy a family meal at a table in the back. The menu is long and features a few straight-up Chinese dishes as well as pho; it’s apparent that American tastes are being catered to here. The muc don thit is a passable version, but I’m still searching for somewhere in town that can light up my tastebuds with pork and squid the way T-Wa Terrace did more than twenty years ago.
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3) Rare Steak in Lime Juice at Saigon Restaurant
1002 South Federal Boulevard
The little shoebox of a restaurant that was once Pho 95 — before the pho boom forced that noodle house to find bigger digs — has been through a few name and ownership changes over the past couple of years, to the point that it’s not quite clear what the actual name of the place is today. The sign out front reads Pho Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant, but everything else is branded Saigon Restaurant. Otherwise, the spot looks the same as it did when it reopened as Pho Market in the spring of 2014 after lying vacant for some time after Pho 95 moved out.
Among the familiar appetizers on the first page of the moderately thick menu is a dish I hadn’t seen before: rare steak in lime juice. I assumed it would be a light appetizer with a few slices of steak, as it was listed at only $8.95. But instead the waiter delivered an enormous salad mounded with thin-shaved pink beef sided with a plate of shrimp crackers. The beef wasn’t quite raw, but had a texture similar to what you’d find in a roast beef sandwich at a top-notch deli — except there was no roasted edge to the meat, no browning to suggest that it had ever spent time in an oven or pan. The beef also differed from the rare steak offered as an option on pho menus, which is generally sliced slightly thicker and in squares or rectangles.
The salad was dressed with a sweet-tart lime sauce with just the barest hint of heat and a little salt. It differed enough from the fishy nuoc cham that came as a side with my egg rolls that dipping in a little of each brought out the best in the beef. This was a fun, familiar salad that could be heaped on rice crackers like mini-Vietnamese tostadas or lingered over until every sauce-soaked scrap of meat and romaine lettuce disappears. Winter weather definitely brings out the pho-natics on Federal, but a cool, refreshing salad is never out of place, no matter the temperature outside.