Every strip mall and shopping center in every Denver suburb seems to house a pho joint, usually one with a name that pairs the word “pho” with a number — either the address itself, a lucky number or something personal to the owner. There are so many of these spots that choosing a favorite becomes a matter of geography instead of taste; most of us just head to the one closest to our home or workplace when we crave a big bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. But when quality counts, sometimes you need to go outside your comfort zone.
While some of our favorites — Pho 79, Pho 95, Pho 888 — utilize the number system for naming their restaurants, not every great pho joint sports digits; Pho Duy and Pho Le are also among our top picks. And then there’s Pho Belmarasia, a family-owned operation in Lakewood that takes its moniker from the Belmar development just across the street. Other than the somewhat whimsical name, there’s not much that physically distinguishes Belmarasia from other pho houses. The sign outside depicts a bowl with steam rising to form the diacritical mark over the “o” in “pho,” letting hungry passersby know what to expect. The exterior of the building is clad in beige stucco while the interior holds a familiar combination of cherrywood-finished furniture, granite counters and bar tops, brushed-aluminum accents, and upholstery and carpeting in patterns that surely came from the sale-price section of a home-improvement superstore. But study the menu, and you’ll discover specialties and uncommon dishes that push Belmarasia a few rungs above much of the competition.
In the appetizers section, look beyond crab-cheese wontons and egg rolls to the signature nem nuong Brodard rolls, named for the Brodard Chateau in Orange County, California, where charcoal-grilled pork sausage of central Vietnamese origin, called nem nuong, is the house specialty. Belmarasia’s version is true to the original, with grill-marked strips of fine-ground sausage swaddled with lettuce and bean sprouts inside stretchy sheets of rice paper. Tightly rolled straws of deep-fried rice paper are also rolled up inside the translucent bundles, adding a satisfying crunch. But the kicker is the deep-brown sauce: In appearance a ringer for the sweet, bland, peanuty sauces that accompany lesser spring rolls around town, it’s far more complex in flavor, with a big dose of raw garlic and enough pungent fish sauce to balance the sweetness. Other sure bets include the banh tom tay ho, disc-shaped fritters embedded with whole shrimp; or the boned and stuffed chicken wings, which are great Vietnamese drinking food.
After an appetizer, you could fall back on your favorite pho combo. All the usual meats are here — rare steak, brisket, flank, meatballs, tendon and tripe — and the kitchen also offers chicken, seafood and vegetarian pho. But in the interest of exploring other possibilities, check out the chef’s special soups first. There you’ll find a few other traditional bowls, from pork-heavy bun bo Hue to hu tieu nam vang bobbing with quail eggs, whole shrimp and barbecued pork.
But the soup that caught my eye was bun rieu, a dish traditionally made with freshwater crabs that are ground into a paste and used to flavor the broth and add a little something extra to soft pork meatballs. Far from the Mekong Delta, where the dish originated and where freshwater crabs are common, Belmarasia likely uses a canned crab paste to enrich its meatballs, which are soft and porous and can be broken up with your soup spoon to help spread the flavor throughout the broth. The bun rieu here also comes with stewed tomato halves (very traditional), cubes of cooked pork blood, fried tofu in spongy chunks that soak up the broth, and meaty pieces of pork rib. A side dish arrives heaped with shredded cabbage and banana blossom, bean sprouts, lime, jalapeño, cilantro, Vietnamese mint and shiso (the big, velvety leaves that are green on one side and purple on the other).
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The mild broth and tangle of rice vermicelli speak of bun rieu’s kinship with pho, but the tomato and pork give the broth a smoother, almost viscous texture that stays on the tongue longer than beef-based pho stock, despite very little fat floating on the surface. Of all the ingredients in the bowl, the pork blood is the most intimidating, but you can ask to have that omitted. Texturally, the deep-maroon cubes are similar to soft tofu, but the flavor is definitely meaty.
Beyond noodle soups, Belmarasia offers multi-person hot pots that come in small ($27) and large ($35 to $39). Options include frog, spicy seafood, goat or catfish, all of which come with heaps of greens, herbs and root vegetables that you add to the simmering pot of broth brought to your table. For a one-person alternative, the clay-pot braised fish gives a rustic taste of Vietnamese country cooking.
Sure, you can do pho by the numbers, heading straight for the nearest noodle house for your fix, but Belmar is an easy destination for most west-side residents. And a stop at Pho Belmarasia means a chance to dive deep into a bowl of something different and delicious.