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...
At this point in my journey up Federal Boulevard, I've eaten at more than a handful of Vietnamese restaurants and I'm starting to feel like I know Vietnamese cuisine. I've sampled sandwiches, slurped soups, plowed through noodles and devoured cuts and parts from virtually every meat source available, with the exception of chicken (which says more about me than about the country's offerings). But leave it to a humble and unassuming little restaurant called Vietnam Grill to challenge my assumptions, to teach me something new, and to dazzle me with vibrant flavors and new textures without ever approaching pedantry.
Let's start with the part about "humble and unassuming." Vietnam Grill squats shoulder-to-shoulder between a video shop and a dentist's office in a strip mall that could have been transplanted straight from Saigon itself were it not for the random notices in Spanish that vie for space with the predominantly Vietnamese signage and squiggled scrawls of graffiti. Strong aromas of seafood and star anise waft from a number of markets whose contents are obscured by heavily barred windows and stacks of boxed merchandise. An abandoned and spray-paint-adorned moving van makes for an added obstacle in the heavily pot-holed parking lot. I counted no fewer than two gasps of warning from Amy as we narrowly avoided a couple of collisions while jockeying for a parking space.
Once we were inside, though, the stress and noise from the street outside disappear. Mood lighting is a rare find here on the west side, but Vietnam Grill's decor and atmosphere -- while spare -- are subtle and relaxing, with dim lights, burgundy walls and crisp black-and-white table settings. An easel with a real chalkboard (no whiteboard here) announces the day's specials and gives the added air of a French cafe.
The menu itself is long but well-organized. Navigating a list like this can seem like learning a second language. Just when you start feeling like you're getting the hang of it, a native speaker will reel off a question and you realize you barely caught a word of it. It's not just building vocabulary; it's knowing how to listen, think and respond in your new language. I certainly recognized the names, or at least the descriptions, of many of the dishes, but this menu embraced a more polyglot approach. Savory porridges that seemed similar to Chinese congee appeared next to pho and rice noodle dishes, while entire sections were devoted to typically Chinese chow mein, lo mein and chow fun.
I recognized the dishes, but variations on familiar themes sparked my curiosity. I've eaten several versions of Vietnamese crepes (banh xeo) around town and have even tried making them at home. But Vietnam Grill offers this dish in a "cupcake" form (banh khot) that we couldn't pass up. There's also a section devoted to variations on hu tieu, pork-broth noodle soup like the kind I fell in love with at Pho Le. the dry version (nam vang kho) called my name. We rounded out our order with rabbit curry and some spring rolls stuffed with egg and Chinese sausage.
With ordering out of the way, I assumed my education was done. The appetizers arrived all at once, along with a plate of herbs, pickled vegetables and lettuce. No problem, right? I've been through this before: You simply wrap your spring roll in lettuce and your choice of herbs before dunking and noshing. The little shrimp-topped rice cupcakes? They're the perfect size for popping right into my mouth.
Fortunately, the waiter noticed my technique and guided me to a better approach. The spring rolls, he explained, already have herbs inside, so there's no need to wrap them. The greens, he continued, are meant for the banh khot. He showed us just how much lettuce to use so that the delicate cups wouldn't be overwhelmed and then left us to construct our appetizers. These banh khot -- made with a mixture of rice flour and egg -- had a light crust on the underside from direct contact with a hot pan, while the interiors were custardy and studded with scallion and fried shallot. The purple perilla leaf, with its hint of cinnamon and basil flavors, brought out the sweetness of the shrimp and egg.
Tackling my nam vang kho also required a little coaching. Confronted with a large bowl of noodles, pork liver and various other morsels, along with a smaller bowl of pork broth, I asked another waiter if I should pour the broth over the noodles. She explained that the noodles already have their own sauce, so her preference is to sip the broth on the side as a palate cleanser between bites. After a good stir, I found the slightly sweet "house brown sauce" underneath the noodles, which mellowed the intense, sulfurous slices of pork liver and balanced the warm, savory broth.
A final question to the staff gave us the name of the unusual herb that topped the delicious Thai-inspired rabbit curry. Called simply rice paddy herb, the crisp greens added a soapy quality similar to cilantro, but with a lychee-like perfume. No modernist chef could have conjured a better flavor counterpoint to the hot sear of the curry.
There are many more surprises and culinary lessons on Vietnam Grill's menu. I look forward to returning for a bowl of rice porridge with the simple yet intriguing modifier "with pig organs." Those creamy banh khot should be a staple on every menu, yet I've only encountered them here. I'm ready for another round of classes from the warm and friendly staff at Vietnam Grill.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.