At Pho 95, warmth and familiarity slow down the rush on a cold night

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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...

I have a theory about pho and about restaurants -- like Pho 95 -- that serve it. Pho is a dish born of market stalls, of cultural collisions, of solo eating on the fly amid the chaos of shouting vendors, impatient customers and noisy traffic. It's not social food to be lingered over or shared. It's best slurped down the moment it hits the table, only pausing to first pelt it with the right mix of fresh herbs, chiles and lime. Much more hesitation and the broth quickly loses its heat from the broad surface area of the wide, shallow bowl. The brightness of the flavors diminish, the meat goes from tender and succulent to limp and chewy, and the subtle play of anise and beef bone becomes cloying and heavy. Restaurants that serve primarily pho must know this, because despite the variety of other items on their menus, the pho houses that do it best concentrate on quick service and a steady churn of tables. They seem to almost court the chaotic dance of customers piling up at the entrance while others are escorted to tables while servers bob and weave through all of this with trays of hot soup and bales of basil.

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Such is the case at Pho 95, probably Denver's best-known and lauded purveyor of Vietnam's by-now familiar comfort-food import. Stepping out of the cold night and into a humid wall of aroma and clamor, my friends and I were more in the mood to catch up on each other's lives over food and drinks than to hunch over a quick meal and dash back out into the snow. If a balance is to be found here, it's in the many sharable dishes of appetizers and noodle dishes, like the Pho 95 Three Treasures, which features whole crab padded with batter and mounted atop a nest of rice noodles alongside egg rolls and fried shrimp in crisp rice paper jackets.

The trouble was that the restaurant was not about to slow down its pace to accommodate our mood. The waitstaff were in a groove, shuttling from table to table with condiments, side dishes and guest checks, hardly aware that we hadn't even cracked our menus before they'd stopped by several times -- with the best intentions -- to see if we were ready to order. One of these pit stops brought with it the disappointing news that the first shipment of liquor to come with their new liquor license was still a few days away. So we ordered the Three Treasures with little time to consult each other or the menu. When all the food came, it was clear that we'd duplicated some items: more egg rolls, three bowls of pho, shrimp (grilled this time) and rice noodles. But at least the food had arrived and we could relax and enjoy the fresh flavors and conversation. We commenced with the tearing of herbs, squeezing of limes, passing of sriracha and nuoc mam, and sampling of each other's dishes. We were caught up in the ritual of pho; the rhythm of the food soon dictates the pace of the evening, so we barely miss the beers and cocktails or lament the lack of diversity of our choices.

Chewy bites of beef tendon mingled with the bright blossoms of marinated steak and luxurious slices of filet mignon. The mounds of bean sprouts, saw leaf and basil dwindled to mere scraps. Somehow, we'd managed to squeeze in conversation -- new jobs, travel plans, children growing up -- without noticing the passage of time or the continued clatter of a busy restaurant around us.

I imagine moments passed over hot pho in a far away market stall when eyes meet over the rims of wide bowls, time slows and a look of agreement passes between diners; this is good food. And then the din encroaches again, but it's warm with energy rather than chaos. I had one last goal to achieve before the night was over, and it was admittedly a cliché. I wanted to taste durian, the storied pungent tropical fruit that many a food hunter has come across in those legendary Saigon markets, or just the freezer section at the suburban H Mart. Pho 95 offers a durian smoothie from which the waiter was unable to dissuade me. Durian, he tells me, is common enough and well loved in Vietnam, but of a flavor not found in fruit of the Western hemisphere, even in tropical regions.

Trying durian is kind of a rite of passage among North American diners who like to consider themselves adventurous, not unlike a teenager's initiation into the world of tequila and mescal, complete with the fabled agave worm. The reality is that durian, especially in a frozen beverage, has an earthy, funky edge, like a pineapple slightly past its prime. But it's also rich and custardy with the slightest citrus tang. I'll withhold final judgment until I can try it fresh and ripe in its native zone, but ultimately it comes down to familiarity or lack thereof. Flavor preferences are built from the youngest age, and what's exotic and off-putting to one culture is familiar and homey to another.

Considering that, the wonder of pho is its ability to offer familiarity, nourishment and pleasure despite the combination of ingredients distinct to one small part of the world. The social aspects of eating may suffer in the rush of commerce, but leave it to a simple bowl of noodles and broth to make us think about what really counts in life. So maybe my theory was wrong; whether solo or with close companions, pho is not the food that fuels the rush of life -- it's what takes us out of it, if only for long enough to reach the bottom of the bowl.

For more, visit our A Federal Case archive.

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