For as long as there has been a Vietnamese restaurant scene in Denver, the heart of that scene has been on South Federal Boulevard. Federal at Mississippi, Federal at Alameda, Federal at all those crooked little residential cross streets, in the cracked-blacktop strip malls, along the arterial sidewalks: For more than two decades, the neighborhood (also known as "Little Saigon") has been the Mile High point of entry to Vietnam.
Certain names on Federal have become iconic over the years: T-Wa Inn, New Saigon, Da Lat (which was Nam Restaurant back in the day, I think), 88 Market, Indochina Enterprises, the long-gone Denver Meat Market. To a certain breed of gastronaut, maybe a certain generation of gastronaut, these places were synonymous with good eating, with culinary adventures experienced outside the comfort of your own area code.
But times change. Ethnic neighborhoods -- and, in particular, ethnic restaurant neighborhoods -- tend to follow a growth pattern similar to that of dandelion patches. Where one dandelion grows today, tomorrow there will be three, then nine. With Denver's increasing desire for Asian food and immigrant sons, daughters and cousins venturing forth from the old neighborhoods to new ones, many contemporary ethnic enclaves were seeded. In southeast Aurora (where places like Kim Ba established a Vietnamese foothold in a heavily Korean area), in Westminster (where small, mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurants sprang up alongside more established Mandarin and Szechuan joints), along Colfax Avenue and Leetsdale Drive, these quickly grew into full-blown communities -- hodgepodge scrums of Vietnamese restaurants and Chinese noodle houses and Korean barbecues.
Today in some parts of Denver, it's harder to find a decent cheeseburger than it is to find a great noodle bowl or soft-shell crab. And while a few years ago I had to drive all the way out to 88 or New Saigon Market to buy candied baby crabs, cheap dinnerware, Indonesian ginger bon bons or a Hello Kitty ashtray, there are now three Asian markets within ten minutes of my house, plus several Indian markets, Middle Eastern markets, Halal butchers, Greek shopettes, Russian department stores and more carnicerías than I can even count.
And this is great. It's reverse manifest destiny, the triumph of the American dream, unbounded capitalism in action and a tea-smoked duck in every pot -- everything I cheer for when another little restaurant opens on a shoestring or some weird combination Mexican-Punjabi cafe hangs its sign in my hood.
At least, I thought it was great until last week, when I got into a conversation with Linda Tran and Tom Lam, who told me that business at T-Wa is down significantly. The reason? Dandelions: the sudden, surprising and massive growth of Vietnamese restaurants outside the boundaries of the old neighborhood.
"It's really bad," Tran explained. "Now, people can go anywhere. Restaurants open left and right. We're just trying to get people in the door again, and I know that business is slow in other places, too."
"A lot of things get involved," said Lam. "So many restaurants are opening. Every time you look, there's new restaurants, new neighborhoods. No one has to come to here anymore. And people, they divide by different groups. North Vietnam. South Vietnam." He stopped, sighed. "And you know, I'm just trying to run a business, okay? I don't have anything to do with Vietnam. This is America. People come in, eat. It doesn't matter, slow or busy. We're always here working."
Working, yes -- but for a lot less these days. Business had been heading south for the last couple years, Tran said. Five years back, Lam added, he would work with eight cooks in the kitchen and a dozen servers. But today, T-Wa's kitchen -- which has burned through three crews recently, all of them hired and fired by Lam -- is staffed by Lam himself, his brother and one other guy. And the floor is almost empty.
Still, they're working. Every day, they make the pho -- a dark, deeply flavored and spicy broth here, cooked for hours in T-Wa's quiet kitchen. They cook up Lam's French-influenced Vietnamese food. And they wonder what it's going to take to get people to come back.
"I don't know what more I can do," Lam said. "People forget, but we're still here."
Love and loss: Things are changing in the very different neighborhood of Cherry Creek, too. Last week, official word came down that after a twelve-year run and months of back-and-forth negotiations, Mel's will close.
"It's traumatic, in a way," owner Mel Master told me over the phone. "It's like selling the house where you had a great love affair, a great relationship. But Cherry Creek has changed a lot in the past twelve years, man. It's not the same neighborhood it was then. I'm trying to say one chapter ends and another begins, right?"
That's the hope. Mel and his wife, Janie, already have a new restaurant, Montecito, up and running in the former Piscos at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, and during the lease renegotiations that preceded their decision to sell, they picked up the Ventura Grill space at 5970 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village, where they plan to open a second Montecito at the end of April.
"By June, I venture we'll be gone," Master says of Mel's. But for those of you (like me) who are a little heartbroken over the thought of losing such a Denver institution, there's hope. Mel dangled the possibility of reopening Mel's in a new location once both Montecitos are going smoothly.
"It's a very, very real possibility," he said. "But it's not something I can really talk about at this time."
Leftovers: Judging from the recent vote on AOL's CityGuide Denver, Snooze is everyone's favorite breakfast joint, a place that just screams Denver in the early-morning hours. Not to me, of course, a sentiment I shared in last year's review of Snooze ("Pancake Apocalypse," July 6), as well as when I re-reviewed the place in the January 18 Second Helping. That critique prompted an inspired defense from the owner's brother, whose February 1 letter prompted a couple from other Denver diners who might not be crazy about me, but definitely find Snooze a snooze.
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"Jason Sheehan's Pynchon-on-meth 'pancake pinup stories' verbiage aside, I can tell you one thing: The very same week he dedicated Second Helping to Snooze, I had the privilege of eating the very same thing he wrote derisively about (corned beef hash) -- and my experience was identical," writes Jonathan Armstrong. "Honestly, how did you make the meat that tough? I have mixed feelings about Sheehan the writer. (Don't get me wrong; his writing is excellent -- providing you like profanity and consider 'Jason Sheehan' an interesting subject.) However, as a food critic, he's generally spot-on -- and unfortunately for Snooze, I have a feeling that our collective corned beef hash experience fits a larger pattern. Snooze is the sort of place we all want to like. However, if my experience is any indication, Snooze has a long way to go before it's the Dottie's True Blue Cafe of Denver."
And this from Rachel Reid: "I am not one to write in to publications, but after reading the letter from the brother of Snooze's owner, I could not resist. Being a resident of Old Town Littleton, I take great offense to his strip-mall comment! If he actually left his neighborhood, he would know that there are many great urban areas outside of his zip code. Has he never been to Highland, Olde Town Arvada, Washington Park? These areas have great independent shops and restaurants. I have been to Snooze, and it is a fine restaurant if you don't mind waiting fifteen minutes for the waitress to actually take your order! If the owner cannot take reviews on his restaurant, he should get out of the kitchen!"
Straight-up popularity contests like the recent AOL effort help explain why we ask readers to vote on only a portion of our Best of Denver categories. (The poll for Best of Denver 2007 debuts on page 68 of this issue.) It's not that I don't love you guys; it's not that I don't trust your opinions. But let's just say there are some restaurateurs out there as bent as any old-time Louisiana ward-heeler, using ballot-stuffing, vote-rigging, bribery and coercion as though they invented them to get their restaurants' names into the paper. If you have honest suggestions for restaurants deserving of awards, I'd love to hear them. (And yes, I read the poll results.) Just don't tell me that McDonald's has the best fries, that your brother's restaurant is the second coming of La Tour d'Argent or that your mom makes the best pancakes in the city, okay? Polls are due March 9; the Best of Denver hits the streets March 29.
In the meantime, I'm still looking for the restaurant that really says Denver to you, as discussed in last week's Bite Me. Send comments to editorial@westword. com, or post them on my From the Gut blog at www.westword. com/blogs. That's also where we'll post daily reports on Denver Restaurant Week through March 2.