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...
So much has been written about New Saigon during its three decades of representing the incredible breadth of Vietnamese cuisine on an otherwise unassuming stretch of Federal Boulevard that there hardly seems anything left to say. From the inarguably colossal scope of the menu to the supposed surliness of the waitstaff to the sheaf of awards earned over the years, seemingly everyone in Denver not only knows about it, but can tell their own tale of sharing (or mangling) a platter of build-your-own spring rolls, fishing aquatic delicacies and exotic herbs from simmering fire pots, or knocking back a few cold Vietnamese lagers over grilled-meat-and-rice combo plates.
So it was a bit of a surprise when my well-traveled and always curious parents recently informed me that they were interested in trying Vietnamese cuisine for the first time. Somehow, despite having shared countless meals and friendships in their years of international work and travel, the food from this sliver of a country had slipped past them. With New Saigon as my next target, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for them to dive into a new experience while also getting a taste of one of my southwest Denver favorites. My sister's family is always up for some culinary adventure, too, so she, her husband and two teenage kids rounded out our party of eight.
I was a little anxious entering New Saigon, hoping that everyone would fall for its kitchen's studied and complex layering of tropical flavors the way I had, that rush-hour traffic wouldn't cause additional stress, that the restaurant and its many choices wouldn't be too overwhelming. My anxiety was unnecessary: Despite being ten minutes early, Amy and I were the last to be seated, while the rest of the family had already plunged into the menu and targeted sections that tempted their individual tastes.
My nephew was thrilled that a half page was devoted solely to various frog-leg preparations. Already a deft cook at sixteen, he'd not only eaten frog legs before, but had actually shopped for and cooked them on his own, with only minimal adherence to a recipe. My parents were drawn to the rustic ingredients and presentations of the clay-pot stews; Mom chose a seafood-and-tofu mix while Dad went with a beef-and-potato version. The rest of us rounded out our banquet with a platter of fried rice and grilled chicken, a stir-fry in lemongrass sauce, and two orders of curry (duck and chicken). Since a family meal never seems complete without a salad, I started us off with the shredded papaya with shrimp and steamed bacon, which turned out to be thin slices of tender pork belly.
The waiters, far from surly, joked with the table and explained everything with good humor and sincerity. As they began to bring our plates, the complex aromas and vivid colors of the food squashed what was left of my anxiety, and I gave in to the pleasure of a shared meal. We passed plates and spooned sauces onto mounds of rice while trying to guess names of the various fresh herbs and the ingredients in the sauces.
The same sweet-and-tangy fish sauce that dressed the papaya salad and the breaded, fried frog legs seemed completely different on the two plates -- enhancing the earthy pork flavor of the salad while giving balance to the sharp black pepper of the coating on the frog legs. While we'd gone heavy on curry-based sauces, the duck version was as rich and luxurious as the pot of beef and chunky root vegetables was humble and satisfying. A simple dish of chicken and fine-sliced vegetables in a pale lemongrass sauce offered a subtle perfume of garlic; my niece was perfectly content with the lightly charred but still moist grilled chicken heaped over raw sliced vegetables and savory rice.
By meal's end, not much was left but scraps of garnish, puddled sauces and a few strands of those pungent and still unidentified raw herbs that seem to almost numb the taste buds after waves of mint, cinnamon, basil, bittersweet woodiness, and soapiness akin to cilantro wash over the tongue -- all in a single leaf. The waiter boxed up my niece's leftovers with the care and tenderness a father shows toward a sleepy child.
My love of simple country fare comes from my family's roots in the rural grain belt of central Canada. Along the way, I was always encouraged to try new foods without squeamishness, whether it was homemade papadum with Indian friends of the family, foraged mushrooms on my grandmother's farm, or whole shrimp bought from a roadside vendor in Texas. Even after I temporarily swore off eggs after a harrowing experience dissecting fetal chicken eggs in junior-high biology class, my parents made sure I understood that food cooked and offered was not to be refused or wasted, and that childish preferences were really just a form of rudeness.
My dad considers star anise an overpowering and distracting ingredient, but he still found plenty to enjoy in our shared meal at New Saigon. I'm not always going to love everything I try on Federal, but as long as it's made with care and dedication, I'm always going to appreciate food for what it is -- not only a form of sustenance, but a means of cultural expression, a way to bond and share, and a basic pleasure that enhances daily life by triggering fond memories as well as awakening the senses with new experience.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.