The big game is about to begin, you’ve rounded up the usual posse to cheer for the home team, you’re ready for beers and bar food: So what’s it going to be? If you’re bound by tradition (or superstition, because eating the same dish just before the national anthem has guaranteed victory in the past), nachos and burgers probably spring to mind, or the many variations on deep-fried finger food that goes so well with beer. But Denver’s bar scene is too dynamic these days to settle for the ordinary, and Americans don’t have the market cornered on bar food anyway.
For a real score, try Giot Dang Cafe at 472 South Federal Boulevard. This spot has plenty of big screens, and Vietnamese cuisine lends itself well to group dining and noshing on small bites of bold dishes that pair perfectly with rounds of cold beer; you’ll even find a few familiar favorites to ease the transition into a new sports-bar tradition.
Giot Dang opened late last year in the former home of Vietnam Bay (before that, the building was occupied by the similar Red Claw), a Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant with a definite tilt toward mon nhau — Vietnamese drinking food. But Giot Dang takes the theme a step further, ditching the Cajun influences and nautical decor for something a little more sophisticated. Tile floors have replaced worn carpeting, and stylish furnishings moved in when dated booths and banquettes moved out. Black leather chairs and white leather bar stools (faux, to be clear, but comfy nonetheless) add a touch of class, while ten or so televisions ring the small dining room, so that every table and bar seat has a good view of whatever’s being broadcast. (On a recent visit, that was a basketball game, ESPN sports talk and a Vietnamese cop thriller.)
The name of the restaurant translates to “bitter drops,” which combined with the word “cafe” might lead the unsuspecting to believe that the place is a coffeehouse. And in fact, the menu begins with coffee drinks, but turn the page for a short list of lagers as well as wine, spirits and even high-end cognac by the bottle. If that’s how you roll, you can drop a couple of Benjamins on some Hennessy or Rémy Martin. But that’s more for the nighttime crowd (and Giot Dang does get crowded), when the karaoke machine fires up and bottle service is more the norm.
For your game-watching session, start with a round of beers and something familiar; waffle-cut sweet-potato fries and an order of wings are a safe bet. While those fries are just what you’ll find anywhere else in town, Vietnamese wings are something special, deep-fried and coated in a tangy, funky sauce with sweet heat and a bite of ginger. Fried quail or frogs legs could come next, good for passing and sharing as you build those little piles of bones, a sure sign of quality bar food.
In fact, there’s an unwritten rule about the manual labor involved in the best drinking food: A high level of work for a low yield (crawfish, chicken wings, peel-and-eat shrimp) means that your hands will stay busy and your drinking speed is properly paced. And you don’t fill up too quickly, which means you can keep the cold brews coming. Giot Dang’s contribution to this concept is oc gao, steamed periwinkle snails with aromatic lemongrass. Similar to escargot but without the garlic-butter coating, these snails get some pep from a ginger-chile garlic sauce that makes the dish worth ordering, even if you’re a little hesitant about eating snails. Toothpicks are provided to pry the meat from the shell; each snail comes out in a perfect spiral shape, which you immediately dunk into the pungent sauce. Scoop, dunk, eat — then follow with a sip of beer and repeat multiple times. Beware of the hard little cap each snail wears; you’ll want to remove those before ingesting.
Once you’ve conquered the snails, you can move on to advanced Vietnamese drinking food: bitter melon with pork floss. Despite the odd name and equally odd, woolly texture, pork floss is nothing more than marinated pork jerky that has been pounded so that the fibers separate into fine fluff. The flavor hits the right sweet, salty and spicy notes familiar to jerky fans, without the jaw strain that comes from chewing dried strips of meat. It’s called cha bong in Vietnamese, and is also used as a filling in banh mi and can be found on Chinese menus listed as rousong. Here, the cha bong is layered over thin slices of bitter melon, which in turn are arranged atop a tray of ice, separated with a sheet of cling wrap to keep the meat and veggies dry. The cool, crisp melon isn’t sweet, but instead tastes more like a cross between cucumber and green bell pepper, with a lingering bitterness that marries well with the salty-sweet pork — and equally well with Asian lager. Eaten with beer, the melon acts almost as an additional dose of hops for the otherwise light and mild beers served at Giot Dang.
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You’ll find other less unusual entrees to round out a meal if you need a little sustenance beyond game time. Stir-fried squid and clams (in two different sizes) come in spicy sauce with chopped veggies, and whole, grilled shrimp are at home on any version of a bar menu, whether Eastern or Western.
During the day, Giot Dang is a little slower, giving new customers a chance to feel their way through the menu, but at night, the place is lively and crowded, great for ordering food and drink in rounds. Go with friends, because portions are generous and most dishes are designed to share — as is that celebratory, $230 bottle of Martell XO.