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...
Baker's Palace isn't much of a palace, from the inside or out. While the parking lot is overgrown with weeds and the building could use a new coat of paint, the interior is at least tidy and spotless, if a little austere in its colors and decor. A few stools along a street-facing counter comprise the only seating, so a takeout order seems like a better option for savoring the banh mi, boba smoothies and rice-based snacks that the Vietnamese bakery and deli offers from its array of cold cases and folding display tables. My friend Greg met me in the empty parking lot on a recent Saturday afternoon with a plan to convey our sandwiches to a more prime location.
Greg arrived a few minutes before me and so had a chance to scope out the neighborhood, perhaps even exchanging a little gold for cash next door to help finance the meal. Not that hocking Grandpa's watch is really necessary; everything at Baker's Palace is exceedingly cheap. With sixteen versions of the classic Vietnamese sandwich -- each with a tempting photo on the back-lit menu board -- only four come in at more than $3 apiece. One in particular caught my eye: a sliced baguette brimming with the usual mélange of cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro, carrot and daikon, but then topped with a row of three eggs fried sunny side up. Visions of runny yolk coating my face, shirt and jeans made me reconsider, so after a few minutes of deliberation we selected three banh mi with BBQ pork, pork-liver pate and a combination with three prepared meats (ham, Vietnamese sausage and what appeared to be headcheese). There's no better accompaniment to charcuterie, whether French or Vietnamese, than a cool glass of beer. The complementary flavors of rich pork fat, sweet malt and bitter hops have been praised by every alcohol-producing culture since the dawn of fermentation, when some anonymous butcher sat down at the end of the day with a vessel of his neighbor's ale to wash down sausage and bread, and merely nodded at the goodness of it all. The second half of our plan, and the reason we decided on a late lunch, was to take our sandwiches to the nearby Wit's End Brewing, which opens at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and offers a range of British and Belgian styles that were sure to bring out the best in our swine-centric choices.
Timing is critical if you want to duplicate this itinerary; Baker's Palace closes at 4 p.m., which means there's only a two-hour window to match a warm baguette with a cold beer. And as with most banh mi shops, the freshness of the bread is the single-most important factor in the overall quality of the sandwich; stopping in just before the doors close may result in disappointment, or at least missing out on that perfect moment when the meat filling melts into the warm, soft crumb of the baguette.
The microbrew explosion has yet to claim space on Federal Boulevard; the closest you can come is sipping a Lao Wang lager at the beer's namesake noodle house, brewed by the son of the owners at his across-town Caution Brewing. Wit's End is only a few blocks off Federal, though, and definitely fits the vibe of the neighborhood: a Spartan setup in an industrial location, a dedication to flavors unfamiliar to the American palate, and a customer base made up of friendly locals and seekers of unique Denver tastes.
I was not at all surprised that the beers at Wit's End brought out the best in the banh mi. Not only did the slightly funky farmhouse flavors of the pate and cured meats meld nicely with the Belgian yeasts in the Jean-Claude Van Blond and the Wilford Belgian IPA, but the residual sweetness of the beers tamed the jalapeños and brought out the brightness of the other veggies. An experimental stout made with roasted lemons was odd and striking, but tasted like an espresso with a lemon twist paired with the crusty French bread torpedo. We had also picked up some unlabeled glutinous rice balls at Baker's Palace - which may have been banh it tran (based on the results of extensive Googling). I enjoyed the bitter hops in the IPA against the subtle rice flavor, slightly sweet nuoc cham sauce and nutty mung-bean filling of the golf-ball-sized snacks.
Certainly Federal has its share of destination restaurants, from the bistro charm of the Vietnam Grill to the bustling and vibrant energy of Torres Mexican Restaurant. But many storefronts are unadorned grottos where the food is the only important part of the experience, unless you take a few minutes to chat with the owners and clerks. Instead of toting home lunch or dinner and wedging yourself into the couch in front of the latest courtroom drama on CNN, a more rewarding option is just around the corner, in the form of shared beers, food and conversation at a local brewery. I'm lucky enough to have some of the best takeout food in the city within a few minutes' drive or bus ride, but it seems these days that every neighborhood has great beer options. It's definitely a combo I can't wait to dive into head-first.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.