Many residents of Denver's Westwood and Barnum neighborhoods were dismayed to learn earlier this spring that George Strompoulos, the longtime owner of Peppers Restaurant at 3500 Morrison Road, had decided to retire from the business and sell Peppers. What would become of the friendly diner that had served up a menu of Greek, American and Mexican breakfast and lunch plates — a distinctly Denver combo — since 1981?
A clue appeared at the beginning of May, when a sign reading "Emmalee House" appeared on the tall post in front of the restaurant. Would it be another comfort-food kitchen with breakfast skillets, green chile and souvlaki sandwiches?
All that and more, it turns out. Onetime regulars who stop by the now-opened Emmalee House between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. will certainly find some of their old favorites; the restaurant has kept much of Peppers' original menu and many of its recipes, as well as its kitchen crew.
But the decor has changed a little. Jade statuettes now adorn the display case beneath the cash register, and brightly colored floral arrangements and other curios add a distinctly Asian theme. In one corner of the dining room, a karoake stage has been set up. And if you come by after 3 p.m., you won't be handed a menu with the usual roster of pancakes, omelets, burgers and chicken-fried steak, but rather a list of traditional Vietnamese dishes ranging from familiar spring rolls, rice plates and noodle bowls to more unusual offerings, such as chao (rice porridge), lau (large hot pots) and sea snails.
The restaurant's new owner is Emmalee Pham, who also runs the kitchen at Pho Belmarasia, located two and a half miles straight west of Emmalee House on Alameda Boulevard. While noodle soups are the specialty at Belmarasia, there isn't too much crossover on the menus of Pham's two spots beyond the soups, hot pots, some of the appetizers and a few stir-fry dishes.
Instead, what you'll find at Emmalee House is well-made Vietnamese cuisine that somehow segues nicely from the breakfast and lunch menu. For example, the bot chien appetizer — a traditional Vietnamese street food that you're not likely to find in many other Denver restaurants — is a sizzling-hot plate of fried rice-flour cakes coated in a savory-sweet sauce. Generally the fried-rice cakes are embedded in an omelet, lightly stirred so that streaks of yolk and white stand out; at Emmalee House, the eggs are scrambled into a dark sauce while they cook on the griddle, resulting in flavorful bits that cling to each cube, augmented with bright-green jewels of scallion. Bot chien could easily stand in for country potatoes and eggs; the rice cakes are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and carry the flavor of the dish as the best hashbrowns would. But this is distinctly Vietnamese, complete with a side of nuoc cham (a blend of fish sauce, lime juice and spices) and a crown of cilantro.
If the original Peppers menu is more your speed but you're willing to try authentic Vietnamese cuisine, shaking beef (bo luc lac) is a good jumping-in point. It's a simple dish of cubed steak sautéed in mild seasonings, served with a fresh salad and a mound of sticky rice. Emmalee's shaking beef is cooked to the edge of medium, so the pink has just vanished but the meat is still juicy and supple.
Those more familiar with Vietnamese cooking can go with clay-pot catfish, salt-and-pepper shrimp or squid, or lemongrass stir-fries available with a number of different proteins. Seafood lovers can choose from various clam, oyster and scallop preparations. And for the adventurous, there's sponge gourd (the same plant that is made into loofahs) with chicken hearts, water spinach (a pungent green that puts collards and kale to shame) with garlic, and grilled goat with okra.
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While Strompoulos is no longer in the house to greet guests, regulars will find familiar faces at breakfast and lunch. But perhaps not for long.
This corner of Morrison and Alameda is evolving along with the surrounding neighborhoods. At one time, Greek and Mexican dishes seemed fun and even a little exotic alongside American fare, but as Denver has grown and changed, some of the old-school favorites began to seem dated. Vietnamese restaurateurs have established a strong foothold on nearby Federal Boulevard, and many Denver residents now find a bowl of pho or a plate of grilled chicken and rice as comforting as chili and burgers.
So it's appropriate that an old-fashioned diner would merge with a traditional Vietnamese eatery to form something new. That's what Emmalee House brings to the area: tradition and change, old and new — both comforting and delicious.
Emmalee House is open daily for breakfast, lunch and diner, with the American menu served until 3 p.m. and the Vietnamese menu served until 10 p.m. Call 303-975-0285 for additional details.