I have lived in quite a few places: Rochester and Buffalo, Tampa, Albuquerque and Denver. I've spent time in even more, on my own American Iliad that stretched from coast to coast and back again and saw me sleeping on the streets in Berkeley and Seattle, dining at the best restaurants in Manhattan, consorting with international criminals in San Francisco, eating pancakes in Austin, barbecue in the Carolinas, cheeseburgers in Georgia and, once, plotting the theft of a life-sized cow made entirely of butter from the show pavilion at the Arizona State Fair. I have been to Graceland, seen the sun rise in San Diego and watched it set in the desolation of Wheeling, West Virginia, drinking coffee in a bus-station diner and feeling like the last man on Earth.
So while I may not have done much with my life, I have seen some stuff. When I say that Denver has something special, I am speaking from a place of some little knowledge. And the 1000 block of South Federal Boulevard is something special. When I once again hit that stretch for this week's review of Pho 95, it suddenly occurred to me that this might be one of the best stretches of road of any city in America for gastronauts. Yes, I have been to Chinatown. Several of them, in fact. Yes, I have eaten my way along 51st Street in New York and wandered the Italian neighborhoods of New Jersey. I've been to the Mission District and Clement Street in San Francisco. I have seen strip-mall concentrations of fantastic foods before (I live in Aurora, after all, where that 'round-the-world jeu de cuisine might just as well have been invented) and have spent hours and days in heavily ethnic neighborhoods of all descriptions hunting for cheap saffron and Indian rock-sugar candy, for baby eels and pignoli cookies and Hello Kitty condoms.
But Pho 95's neighborhood is different, a rarity of place and pressure and unfettered immigration.
First, there's Pho 95 itself, at 1002 South Federal Boulevard — fast on its way to becoming my new favorite pho restaurant, currently standing just behind Pho 79 (in my own neighborhood strip-mall dreamland) for taking best in show and already knocking out my historic favorite, Pho 2000, which closed years ago but stuck like a burr in my mind as that most perfect place for a psychological head-kick of Blade Runner futurism.
A few steps away is Ba Le Sandwich (1044 South Federal); the little banh mi shop that does French-Vietnamese fusion better than anyone recently started offering frozen yogurt and sometimes serves its sandwiches on the best rice-flour baguettes in the city. I still haven't figured out why it doesn't always have the best bread ever, but I will eventually. Ten, maybe twenty more years of eating there and I'm sure I'll have the mystery solved.
At 1076 South Federal, there's New Saigon Market, which has everything I love about little Asian groceries: sacks of rice piled like sandbags and mysterious sea creatures for sale, cans of Café Du Monde on the shelves, strange candies, stranger sauces, an odor of kimchi.
Just around the corner is Star Kitchen (2917 West Mississippi Avenue), where kitchen talent from the city's best dim sum restaurant (Super Star Asian, at 2200 East Alameda) went to open the city's other best dim sum restaurant. And just past the Mississippi intersection is Chopsticks China Bistro, one of the great traditional Chinese restaurants in Denver, even if it does have a name that makes it sound like the third-best Asian buffet in Indianapolis. But it won't be here much longer; within the next week or so, it's scheduled to relocate to 5117 South Yosemite Street. And Can Tho Pho now occupies the spot at 1036 South Federal where Ha Noi Pho once served the best Vietnamese crab soup in the country (see Second Helping on page 46 for more).
There's a streak of convulsive history running through this stretch of Federal, an unsettled sense of nothing ever being finished, nothing ever being finalized. Pho 555 is now in the space that that once held Ocean City (1098 South Federal), and it was at Ocean City that I had one of my first truly mind-blowing meals in Denver: a Chinese New Year party that I got myself invited to courtesy of Gene Tang from 1515. Sitting with him and his cooks (Olav Peterson, currently exec at Bistro One on Broadway, and Ben Alandt, an artist who cooked with Ian Kleinman at Indigo when that was one of the most cutting-edge restaurants in the city, then ran off to Portland where his habits finally, fatally, got the better of him), I ate cold pickled pig's ears and moon cakes and lobster salad made of twenty whole lobsters. It was unforgettable.
This is all just one block, and I'm not even counting Da Lat (940 South Federal) or Tacos y Salsas (910 South Federal) or Lollicup or Garhing Restaurant or Gio Cha Cali or Vietnam Grill or Hong Phat Market, just down from Vietnam Grill. Within one hundred yards, we have a half-dozen of Denver's best ethnic restaurants, two of its wonderful markets, countless great moments. There are other incredible restaurant stretches in this city (Sixth Avenue, Blake Street, Larimer Square, 17th Avenue), but none that have the concentration of this one block, none that have the adventure, none that have such an incredible power to transport.
Only in Denver, baby. There's no place like home.