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...
The strip mall on the east side of Federal Boulevard between Mississippi and Tennessee avenues has been getting a new façade for the past few weeks...at least. Maybe the spring snowstorms slowed down progress, but it seems like construction came to a halt once the lumber was up, but before any siding, paint or other finishings could be added. At about the same time the work started, Golden Pho & Grill decided to open in the location previously occupied by Can Tho Pho. It's been operating under an undulating vinyl banner that, while clearly temporary, outclasses the signage of neighboring shops and restaurants, which have been forced to make do with whatever notices they already sported. These are not ideal circumstances for introducing a new restaurant, but the conditions highlight the new kid on the block in a way that may attract a little extra business purely out of novelty.
With a mix of anticipation (for something new and fresh) and apprehension )about something new and maybe not so fresh), Amy and I made our way through the convulsive Federal traffic and through the front door (don't be confused: there are two, use the one on the right) of Golden Pho. Everything looked as it should: cream tablecloths under glass tops, artwork and tchotchkes in vivid reds and golds, a few booths occupied by Vietnamese families, and a couple of bros in college hoodies and pajama pants. The neighborhood had already settled in to Golden Pho, even if the restaurant hadn't yet settled in to the neighborhood.
The host/waiter/conversationalist who seated us and took our initial order was tidily dressed and professional in appearance, so I asked if he was the owner. With a wry smile, he responded that it was actually his wife's place and that he was "just helping out." We placed an order for banh xeo -- a tricky cross between a crepe and an omelet -- and then paged through the remainder of the menu. When our banh xeo arrived, we also ordered pho with rare steak and flank and a bowl of bun bo Hue, proof that Vietnam had mastered nose-to-tail cooking long before it became trendy in the modern porketerias dotting Denver's trendier neighborhoods.
I say that banh xeo is a tricky dish because it's so easy for the chef to ruin. The combination of rice flour and eggs can be made too thick and eggy, resulting in what looks like an omelet but has the texture of a doormat. Or it can be too thin, resulting in a gritty, oily crepe that has more in common with parchment paper. A perfect banh xeo is thicker than a French crepe, thinner and crisper around the edges than an American omelet, and studded with tender shreds of pork and thin slices of shrimp. Golden Pho's version was delicate enough that I could tear off pieces with my clumsy chopstick technique, yet firm enough to hold together while I stuffed each torn-off piece into a lettuce wrap. The resulting bites encompassed a multitude of flavors and textures -- bittersweet basil leaves, crisp and tangy pickled carrot and daikon, earthy bean sprouts and savory meats -- all married by an addictively fishy nuoc cham dipping sauce that was light on the sugar and accentuated the other flavors like a dash of good sea salt. The pho itself leaned to the sweeter side of the spectrum but showcased fresh, flavorful steak and became more balanced with the addition of basil, lime and saw leaf. The bun bo Hue was rich and rewarding; each spoonful yielded a bite of something new and wonderful. I felt like a pearl diver each time I surfaced with a cube of cooked pig blood, a piece of pork loaf, a thin slice of beef shank, or a shred of pork from the fist-sized hock that stubbornly dominated the center of the bowl until I moved it to a side plate to pick off every last scrap of meat and unctuous bit of rind. The toppings that come with bun bo Hue are also a little different than what you get with pho, at least at the restaurants that care. Golden Pho gets it right by including purple perilla leaves and a pile of banana blossom chiffonade in addition to the standard bean sprouts and basil. The fat, chewy noodles that take the place of thin and delicate rice noodles in pho anchor the soup with their considerable heft.
Golden Pho may be new, but its fit right in with the Federal vibe. It has to be good to stand its ground against so much competition and the owners are confident enough to let the food speak for itself, yet friendly enough to strike up a conversation about the relative powers of pho vs. bun bo Hue. There's nothing fancy about the restaurant, but the food is clear evidence of deep knowledge and many years of perfecting technique and flavor combinations.
Feeling emboldened by the restaurant's potential for success and fortified with a belly full of pig parts and noodles, I squealed my tires out of the parking lot -- straight across two lanes of traffic -- before making a hard turn into the center lane and coming to a sudden stop. That's right, Golden Pho had inspired me to attempt the tricky maneuver I call simply the Federal Left. Success is the only option.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.