Penn Station Coffee, at 450 17th Avenue, looks like any other neighborhood espresso joint, the kind you might walk past every day and not really notice until you need a cappuccino or a big cup of coffee. Inside, chalkboards over the tiny kitchen and order counter list coffee drinks, smoothies and tea on one side, sandwiches and salads on the other. But among the typical cafe offerings of panini, Caprese salads and breakfast croissants, there are a few Vietnamese surprises.
A glass deli case displays to-go cups of iced Vietnamese coffee and spring rolls, and the aroma of simmering soup mingles with steam from the espresso machine. That soup, listed on the menu as just "noodle soup," turns out to be hu tieu, traditionally made with pork and seafood. Chef Hoai Thai (who has been in the Penn Station kitchen for three years) makes the hu tieu with chicken broth, to which you can add shrimp and chicken or barbecued pork. The broth is as spicy and flavorful as any found in Federal Boulevard's many Vietnamese restaurants.
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Other daily offerings include rice or noodle bowls topped with peanuts, pickled daikon and carrots, and spicy chicken or pork; there's also a vegetarian version that substitutes eggs for the meat (but make sure to request no fish sauce). Stir-fried noodles and a spicy banh mi sandwich — the breakfast version, with eggs, your choice of breakfast meat and French pâté, is not to be missed — round out the the regular menu items.
On Tuesdays, though, Vietnamese chicken curry adds its powerful aroma to the small space, which only holds four tables. The curry is thick with big bites of potato and carrot, making it a hearty stew perfect for chilly days. And sushi rolls are the special on Thursdays. Servings of all the Vietnamese specialties are generous, and nothing tops $10.
Penn Station Coffee is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 720-745-3698 for more details, or 303-885-4790 for catering orders of sushi rolls, spring rolls and banh mi.