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...
Isn't there a saying that if you don't have anything bad to say, don't say anything at all? There should be. I don't have anything bad to say about Pho 555, but I can't seem to muster up much enthusiasm, either. On the day I stopped in, facing another bowl of pho in a place that hadn't earned the reputation of Pho Duy, the non-stop crowds of Pho 95, or the critical acclaim of Pho 79 was a difficult prospect. I tried to keep a positive attitude, but my eyes kept wandering from the squat, yellow-roofed joint on the corner of Federal and Mississippi toward its neighbor, Star Kitchen, which by a quirk of strip-mall design is set just far enough back from Federal that it has been slapped with a Mississippi street address and so is off-limits in my quest for tastiness along Denver's tastiest boulevard.
I cheered myself up by thinking how much a good bowl of pho can be like hunkering down under a warm quilt as the Colorado skies grow angry and the wind snatches up handfuls of grit to throw in your face. I reminded myself that even the lowliest pho shops generally have a few house specials to showcase other Vietnamese specialties. On Pho 555's menu, it turned out to be banh uot cha lua -- steamed rice flour rolls with pork "meatloaf." It also turned out that this was a weekend-only specialty, so I was out of luck. Pho it was, but at least the options included seafood pho with fish and shrimp balls (pho do bien), chicken pho (pho ga), and a vegetarian option with tofu.
Inspiring? Adventurous? Unique? Not really. A starter of fried chicken dumplings was satisfying, but the dumplings were most likely not house-made. My pho with rare steak, shreds of pungent tripe, and chewy slabs of tendon cut thick like dominoes was warming but mild. I had to lean in close to detect the aroma of spices, ginger, and onion that normally jump up at you like the family dog -- exuberant and barely restrainable -- and I missed the cilantro-like saw leaf on the plate of garnishes that held the other standards of lime, basil, jalapeno and bean sprouts.
The kitchen showed a defter touch with the rich, slightly sweet and perfumed broth of the seafood pho. A touch of something reminiscent of vanilla added depth and subtle complexity when combined with a few squirts of lime. If you haven't had Vietnamese shrimp or fish balls, imagine something simultaneously dense and spongy with a finely processed texture like Spam or bologna, but with an intense fishy flavor instead of pork and sodium. A bite of fish ball with rice noodle and a little Sriracha sauce is not unlike eating Spam musubi -- the combination of textures from childhood sandwiches and exotic flavors and ingredients creates a wickedly fun sensory dissonance. Is it comfort food, a crazed experiment or the everyday food of people just like us, only from a different climate and geography?
Not everyone is looking for the most intense and masterful bowl of pho. Not everyone craves varied or unusual ingredients. Pho 555 was busy even on an otherwise slow night of the week and even at an hour early enough to warrant early-bird status. Some folks return to the same spot week after week because it's comfortable, close and familiar. But my mind wanders up the street because the steam from the soup has not threaded its tendrils into my mind and because the menu doesn't read like a guidebook to a vast network of tropical villages. I'm already thinking of mahogany-lacquered duck, French-Vietnamese fusion sandwiches bursting with vivid and powerful flavors, and those forbidden steamer baskets filled with mysterious dumplings and clenched chicken feet.
Maybe it's not fair to compare restaurants so directly. Maybe each restaurant should stand on its own merits. But when you look out the restaurant window while you're eating and can see other pho shop signs beckoning you with graphics depicting wisps of steam escaping brimming bowls, it's hard not to. And I remember the first time I ate pho and wondered what the big deal was, only to try it a few weeks later in another location and wonder why I had missed out for so long.
Each bowl of pho does stand on its own merits, but memory interjects its bias and whispers, "Ah, but if only..."
For more from our culinary trip down Federal, visit out A Federal Case archive.
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