There's not a cloud in the sky, and the thermometer just topped 90 degrees; the acrid smell of hot asphalt is strong, and waves of heat distort the lines in the parking lot. But through the haze of heat, just past Pacific Ocean Marketplace and Super Star Asian Cuisine in the Alameda Square Shopping Center, the logo of a steaming bowl with crossed chopsticks beckons. Yes, it's another westside pho shop, this one called Denver Pho, and despite the baking temperatures, customers are crowding tables even during a typically slow Monday lunch hour.
Although pho is the creation of a country where heat and humidity are a constant, Denver diners are a little more sensitive and generally slow their intake of noodle soups as the mercury climbs. But Denver Pho is going strong.
The restaurant was opened a year and a half ago by Orlando Nague and his wife, Mai Nguyen, who is also the chef. In addition to offering the familiar beef-based soup that's getting as common as burritos and burgers in this city, Denver Pho's menu tours the entire of length of Vietnam for culinary inspiration, from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen's home town, in the south. There's even a section devoted to specialties from Hue, a city halfway between north and south that's considered a culinary center of the country and was once its capital.
One of Nguyen's favorite dishes to cook, and one of the restaurant's biggest sellers, is bun cha Hanoi: rice noodles and specially seasoned grilled pork served in broth. Although she has only lived in this country for four years, Nguyen was here when Barack Obama visited Hanoi in 2016 and ate bun cha with Anthony Bourdain. People there started calling the dish "bun cha Obama," she recalls, especially when eaten at Bun Cha Huong Lien, the family-owned restaurant that gained international attention after the president's visit.
In addition to the more common bun bo Hue, a hearty pork noodle soup that's pho's bolder, richer cousin, the roster of traditional Hue specialties includes a variety of dumplings that are mostly light and fresh and ideal summer snacks. Banh loc are petite packets of steamed tapioca-flour dough filled with minced shrimp and pork. They're translucent and chewy, with a red-orange center, resembling something you might find living on a coral reef. You can choose between banh loc goi or banh loc tran, steamed with or without banana-leaf wrappers. If you order them with the banana leaf, peel and eat them quickly, because the wrapper tends to stick once the dumplings cool. A quick dunk in the accompanying nuoc cham sauce adds tangy heat from lime juice, chiles and fish sauce.
Banh beo are delicate rice-flour dumplings steamed in open saucers so that they form floppy little disks. They're topped with scallions, pieces of fried pork rind and a bright-orange crumble of dried shrimp that gets its color from anatto seed. These are slippery rather than sticky, like the banh loc, but they're also perfect on a hot day.
Bun dau mam tom comes from Hanoi, not Hue, but it's also a great summer dish and a light meal for two — if you can get past the extremely aromatic mam tom sauce, made from a purplish fermented shrimp paste that's considerably more pungent than typical Vietnamese fish sauce (though the flavor is much milder than the smell).
Golden cubes of fried tofu (dau), thin slices of pork belly and fried pork meatballs coated in flakes of crackly green rice share space on a wicker basket, all nearly buried in an avalanche of shiso leaves and romaine lettuce. Cool rice noodles round out the plate and act as a palate cleanser. Regulars wrap bites of tofu, meatball and noodles in the fresh greens and dip them into the slick sauce with their fingers; getting everything in one bite can be tricky, so beginners might want to eat the noodles separately. On a busy day here, many tables will have a plate of bun dau mam tom at the center: Denver's Vietnamese population has definitely gotten wind that Denver Pho serves this popular street food.
Denver Pho is decorated in dark, soothing colors, but for the sea-blue tiles at the bar. There's a patio out front that stays shady during lunch but might get a little sweltering in the early evening hours; a few beers from the bar — or a boba smoothie — should chase away the heat.
The restaurant's location at the back of the shopping center initially posed a challenge, Nague says, but once diners found it, they kept coming back. And back again. If you're a believer in sweating through the heat to help cool off, you can't go wrong with a bowl of the light but captivating pho, or you can venture through the menu and take a refreshing trip through Vietnam, from tip to tip.
Denver Pho is located at 2200 West Alameda Avenue and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; it stays open an extra hour on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 303-922-7888 or visit the restaurant's website for more information.