There was a time when the pho shop at 1036 South Federal Boulevard was one of my favorites. I would go out of my way to have lunch there, skip out on meetings and blow off interviews just for an early dinner among the friends and neighbors who gathered in its small, shabby dining room. The kitchen did good pho, occasionally great pho, but it also did a bun bo Hue that was legendary — like drinking fire and living to tell about it. I could sit there for hours trying to decipher the menu, watching Asian soap operas on the little TVs hung from the ceiling and the crowds that came and went. I was there one night with fellow critics Tucker Shaw from the Denver Post and John Lehndorff from the Rocky Mountain News and, when the three of us started quizzing the owner about the provenance of some of his less recognizable ingredients, he pulled out a cell phone and called home to Vietnam for an explanation of just how they were used.
There was a time when the pho shop at 1036 South Federal was beloved, a destination for Denver's gastronauts and North Vietnamese immigrants looking for a hot, cheap hit of home. There was also a time when it was the most notorious restaurant in the city, following a botched robbery and a shootout that left the walls pocked with bullet holes and four people in the hospital.
This was all back when the pho shop was called Ha Noi Pho. But for more than six months, the address has been operating with a different owner, focusing on a different country (South Vietnam rather than North), under a different name: Can Tho Pho. I stopped by last week with a thick book and a big hunger — but rather than the thrilling, fascinating, vital joint I'd once loved, I found just a shadow of Ha Noi. Where once there'd been mysterious jungles of greenery requiring international phone calls merely to identify, now there were blonde broths and clumpy noodles, gummy wads of tendon in the pho tai gan and workaday plates of purple basil, limes, sprouts and jalapeños.
The food was good but not great — and Denver already has a hundred good pho shops. The service was fast, but the service is always fast in operations like this. It was friendly, too; at one point, there was even a conference of owners and cooks and family and friends around one table as they attempted to explain the difference between a prawn and a shrimp to a lady who'd asked.
Can Tho had all this, but what was missing was that spark of difference, of adventure, of never quite knowing what you were going to be getting when you sat down to eat. And while there's no guarantee that a new restaurant will capture the spirit of a favored old one that occupied the same address, I was still hoping for a little something more — a little charge of the old magic lingering somewhere in the air.
And I'm just sad I wasn't able to find it.
In Second Helping, Jason Sheehan visits a restaurant that deserves extra attention. Send suggestions to [email protected].