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...
Mexican. Pho. Mexican. Pho. Mexican. Pho. Are you sensing a pattern here? Don't get too used to it, because this week's destination on my all-Federal tour is Pho 96 -- the last restaurant before Mississippi, a key signpost that I'll be entering a zone with more diversity (although far fewer Mexican restaurants). In addition to pho houses, the next couple of blocks offer other Vietnamese specialties like banh mi sandwiches and boba teas, as well as restaurants peddling the cuisines of Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Get ready to fasten your seatbelts as I chauffeur you through a series of pothole-riddled parking lots, strip malls in various states of rehabilitation, and tiny dining rooms serving some of the best food in Denver.
But first, relax while I enjoy a little noodle soup at Pho 96. The owners of this pho shop run a quiet, tidy operation. Subdued and polite aromas beckon to you like distant relatives meeting you as you disembark into a modern airport after a long flight. It's not at all the sensory overload of parachuting into a steamy jungle of spices, fryer oil, fish sauce and murk. The menu is precise and edited, with four brief sections dividing all dishes into noodle soups, noodle bowls, rice plates and appetizers. There's little to entice the adventurous or scare the novice, save for the standard pho beef options of tripe and tendon, which are neatly sliced and mildly flavored at Pho 96.
My wife and I combed the menu for something unique or unfamiliar before settling on an appetizer of chicken wings, a bowl of pho with rare steak and tendon, and a combination rice plate that covered all options -- a little grilled beef, pork, chicken, and shrimp laid out over bright, fresh lettuce with a couple of dainty fried egg rolls tucked next to a dome of rice.
The food at Pho 96 is all prepared and served with the same care and precision as the menu layout. The chicken wings sported crisp, golden-brown skins around juicy interiors, even if the seasoning was minimal and the accompanying sauce was only vaguely hot and tangy. The grilled meats on the rice plate were tender and shot through with just the right amount of char. The pho broth was pleasantly beefy, but with no complexity or distinguishing character.
Continue reading for more from Pho 96.
While not exactly bland, most of what we ate lacked the bracing slap and exotic seasoning of many tropical-climate dishes. There seemed to be an almost deliberate theme of restraint that spread from the menu into the dining room décor, even the embroidered rural scenes of Vietnam -- threaded in muted pastels -- that graced the walls. Fortunately, each table had a condiment caddy stocked with fish sauce (it's nice to not have to ask), house-made chile sauce (again somewhat restrained), and the ubiquitous Sriracha and hoisin bottles. A dab of chile on the beef tendon or a sprinkle of fish sauce on the wings accentuated the excellent textures with just enough extra brightness, salt or umami. The gracious and genuinely friendly service also added a layer of warmth to the meal long after the leftovers on the plates had cooled.
Back at home with a chance to study the takeout menu a little more, I noticed a couple of other items for which I'd return. The appetizer labeled "seasoned pork roll" in English is actually bi cuon -- chewy rice paper wrappers stuffed with a mixture of sliced pork, pork skin and toasted rice powder. There's also a rice dish featuring pork chop and "egg cake," which may have been a kind of Vietnamese omelet or quiche (cha trung). As I eat at more Vietnamese restaurants, I'm learning to pick up on the Vietnamese names of the dishes and ingredients, rather than relying on the English translations.
I'll definitely have more opportunity to learn, with several more pho joints and as many full-on Vietnamese restaurants with menus like phonebooks to look forward to over the next several blocks. Let us know your favorites -- especially those key words in Vietnamese that mean something great on the menu, even if the English translations don't quite whet the appetite. I'll hold up my end of the bargain by sampling the many variations on themes, diving into the house specials and always keeping an eye open for the unique.
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For more from our trip up Federal, check out our A Federal Case archive.