When I reviewed Pho 99 two months ago, I stuck with the Vietnamese soup for which the place was named, in deference to some complicated dental work. I slurped it with flank and tendon, with tripe, with chicken, and even managed to eat — carefully — some chao tom: homemade steam-'em-yourself rice paper rolls with squeaky shrimp paste. But because of the stitches in my jaw, I was unable to get a full taste of Pho 99's menu. Sure, I could read it — loving descriptions in Asian-menu shorthand: broken rice and sweet sausage, pork balls and vegetable — but that was kind of like bringing a load of porno to your six-month shift as a firewatcher, alone in that tower with nothing to do but think.
Needless to say, as soon as I healed, I headed back to Alameda Square, a place where I've become something of an irregular regular, haunting the restaurants and markets, standing on the cracked sidewalk smoking cigarettes with the girls from the beauty school. But these days, with Alameda Square slated to be redeveloped into a Lowe's and the existing tenants being chased out for an indeterminate amount of time, I've felt an increased sense of desperation — never quite knowing which visit will be my last.
Last week, I hit Pho 99 for Wednesday lunch with a big crowd — ten of us — and though I went for the pho (it's a reflex, wired into me like a captive hamster eating food pellets: Pho available? Eat pho), luckily, some of my comrades-in-eats were more adventurous. And generous. So I got to try pork and pork over noodles — a cereal bowl full of grilled pork and pork meatballs, starbursts of carrot, ground peanut and flecks of dried red pepper, soaking in a broth of nuoc cham as biting and astringent as a shot of Italian dressing, meant to be spooned out over the noodles. It was a delicious deconstruction of the classic pork-and-noodles grill plate with fried egg roll served at almost every other Vietnamese restaurant in the States, and delineated on this menu as "Hanoi style" for reasons that escape me, unless there's a pork-ball franchise somewhere in Hanoi that makes the plate this way.
The big discovery, though, was the banh xeo. Some time ago, I lamented that in this city full of otherwise excellent Vietnamese restaurants, no one served that sweetest hit of Vietnamese street food. Banh xeo is a Vietnamese crepe — kinda. It's what would happen if a crepe and an American flapjack had a baby made of rice flour and coconut milk. And Pho 99 has one, as huge as a Dutch baby. Folded in half, it still filled an entire plate and hung tantalizingly off the edges, its bottom and edges frilled with crisp lace, its middle still soft, warm and stuffed with bean sprouts (which I normally loathe the way I do celery, but which were so fresh and so snappingly crisp that I could almost ignore their tilled-dirt flavor), chopped shrimp, pork and ground turmeric. I usually add hoisin sauce or black-bean paste to my bites because I am a savage, but the banh xeo at Pho 99 was at once so sweet and savory that it really needed nothing more than a big appetite and a willingness to eat with your hands — two things I've got in spades.
Our only disappointment was the Vietnamese fried rice, which looked like paella and tasted like poverty leftovers — little bits of this and that (shrimp ends and vegetables and sweet Chinese sausage that tasted unappetizingly candied). It might be an acquired taste; it might be as traditional as all get-out. But I still didn't like it, and I wasn't alone in my opinion. The nice thing about eating with a crowd is that the jeers come aggregated — gentled by the plate's passing down one side of the table and back up the other.
Still, only one clunker on a menu as broad and far-reaching as Pho 99's is nothing to sneeze at. I just wonder how much longer I have before this restaurant has to close up and move in advance of the bulldozers. The owners don't seem to know for sure, either. So my advice? Get there while you still can.
And skip the fried rice.
Leftovers: Good news for you sugar junkies who like a little liquor with your chocolate! D Bar Desserts, the dessert bar opened this spring by Keegan Gerhard and Lisa Bailey at 1475 East 17th Avenue, is finally legal.
When I called to get the scoop on how D Bar had finally secured its liquor license, I reached Michelle Foltz on the floor. "We did it," she told me. "We got it last Monday." And though D Bar hasn't made a big deal out of this newfound freedom, it's come up with a good way to spread the word. "We just take the wine menu to every single table," Foltz explained. And most of the customers can figure out how to take it from there.
Right now, D Bar is only doing wine, but there are plans to add cocktails, dessert-inspired martinis (mmm...pie martini) and even some beers to the board.
The news isn't as promising over at 1550 Blake Street, where the new 8 Rivers LoDo location was supposed to open in late August, then on September 1, then in mid-September. But as of early this week, business still wasn't flowing at this 8 Rivers. I'm trying to be patient, although I really want to see what chef Scott Durrah (who still operates his diminutive 8 Rivers up in Highland) can do with a bigger space and a little more room to move.