Pho 99 serves a surprisingly authentic, working-class, streetside kind of pho that, while not exactly rare in Denver (what with its million numbered pho shops and half-million more unclassifiable Vietnamese restaurants), is not the most common iteration of the classic Vietnamese breakfast-lunch-dinner-midnight-snack food, either. Its focus on ingredients and plain unfussiness — along with its simple assumption that a good bowl of soup will find its own audience — make it something special.
Pho Fusion is special, too, even if it takes the opposite approach. Owner Tom Bird makes no claim that he's doing the most authentic pho in town. He doesn't aspire to simplicity (whether by design or happy accident) and is certainly not trusting in the near-mythic power of a well-made bowl of soup to attract its own loyal following. Still, at this single unit (with multi-unit ambitions), he's a relentless pho promoter, feeling it his duty to serve great pho (plus egg rolls, lettuce wraps, sesame chicken, coconut curry pad thai and rice bowls) to those who already know what pho is and to educate anyone who doesn't.
8800 East Hampden Avenue
I dropped in for lunch last week and found him, at five minutes after opening, already working the floor, straightening the counters and welcoming the early rush of customers — some of whom had been sitting outside in their cars, waiting for the clock to roll over to 11 a.m. The chicken pho was excellent, as always — a rich, clear broth, somewhat on the sweet side, with notes of cinnamon and anise. The spring rolls had been rolled by hand when I ordered them, my iced Vietnamese coffee brought to the table and allowed to drip while I lingered over my first bites of soup and the morning paper.
The broth here is made fresh every day, just like everything else. And Bird — the son of Hai Bird, former owner of T-Wa Terrace, an ex-investment banker who traded in his expensive suits and briefcase for a T-shirt and a wok — still gets most of his supplies from the Vietnamese markets along South Federal and Alameda. Staying true to his original concept, he supports a menu that's a mutt mix of Southeast Asian cuisines — a little something for everybody in a crossroads kind of neighborhood where everyone is looking for something a little bit different.
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It's a good concept, and while Bird hasn't yet managed to put together all the elements necessary for getting a second store off the ground — "I like to manage expectations," I heard him say to someone who asked about it. "If I say never, then people will be surprised when it opens" — he's still trying, still dreaming big and hoping to be the Vietnamese Chipotle. And I'm hoping he succeeds.