Pho Le: So pho, so good (and porky)

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...

On that promising Monday when the weatherman predicts clear and mild for the entire week and winter seems to be loosening its grip and giving way to the longer days and blue skies of a Colorado spring, March decides to give us all the finger -- along with dusty wind and spatters of wet snow. When I should be enjoying a margarita on a breezy patio, I'm instead ducking inside and cursing the name of that inaccurate meteorologist. On a day like this, I'm only encouraged by one thing: a row of pho shops offering an escape from the chill -- in the form of steaming bowls of broth, tangles of noodles, and deceptively simple spices that warm the soul as well as the body. It hardly seems to matter which one I choose; I've seldom been disappointed. Denver residents have their clear favorites on Federal Boulevard and throughout the city, but Pho Le is next on my northbound journey, so I turn up my collar and run for the entrance, hoping for something more than simply adequate.

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Pho Le, like many of the restaurants along this stretch of Federal, has received a recent facelift, including new signage, a slightly modernized beige stucco exterior, and a clean, simple interior. But the familiar aroma of star anise, beef broth and basil greets me at the door like a friendly host who's been doing the job for ages.

My wife and a friend have joined me so that we can sample a little more of the menu's variety. After exchanging remarks about the job security of the local weather forecasters and the intoxicating, steamy atmosphere of the dining room, we get down to the business of ordering. We make sure to include at least one classic bowl of pho with sliced beef, as well as some fried egg rolls to test the kitchen's skill with the basics. My goal is a hearty bowl of bun bo hue, pho's beefier cousin, because in weather like this, I'm drawn to the richer, more intense broth, the fortifying cubes of pig blood, and the bonus pork hock often found lurking beneath the noodles and sliced onion. And while Pho Le does include this dish on its menu, something else catches my eye while I stumble over the diacritical marks of the Vietnamese alphabet: a soup with two kinds of noodles, sliced pork heart, quail eggs and pork rib. Without hesitation I order the hu tieu mi nam vang. The grinning waiter asks me a few questions to make sure I know what I'm getting myself into, while my wife adds a bowl of shrimp pho to our order.

It's a quiet night at Pho Le, so our order arrives quickly, with plate after plate of crisp lettuce, branches of basil, nests of bean sprouts, shards of carrot and daikon, and jars of pickled garlic and hot peppers. I have to ask the waiter what the plate of Chinese celery leaf is for; he responds that it's all mine -- to garnish the hu tieu.

Continue reading for more from our trip to Pho Le.

The egg rolls are crisp and clean-tasting with just a hint of oil, but we rush through them because the steaming bowls of broth and noodles are why we really came. The pho broth is delicate and complex without being sweet, its deeply layered flavors a shining example of why pho has become so popular in the U.S. The shrimp pho is not just the same beef broth with shrimp thrown in to replace the sliced meats; its pinkish hue and soft flavor suggest the use of shells to make the stock, but it's not at all fishy. The hu tieu is my favorite, with a rich, pork-based broth studded with bits of pork cracklings and fried garlic. The heart is sliced paper-thin, but maintains a slight chewiness and intensity to match the broth. The quail eggs and a couple of bonus shrimp that weren't mentioned on the menu add just the right touch of sweetness and tender texture to contrast with the deep, meaty flavors of the other ingredients. I try the broth before and after adding generous shreds of Chinese celery leaf. The earthy, bitter and mildly minty flavor of the celery adds a brightness that balances the heavier, barnyard flavors extracted from the pork bones. Overall, it's an exquisite dish in both flavor and presentation.

While I've found minor variations in the subtleties and delicacy of pho at various restaurants around town, I've never understood the intense loyalty that some Denverites profess for their favorite pho joints. As long as the broth is not obviously poured from a can, as long as the beef is tender, as long as the herbs and veggies are crisp and fresh, I'm happy with pho from any number of places. I'll occasionally add the more rustic flavors of tripe or gelatinous sections of tendon to my order, but even then, I've never received a bowl unworthy of the time and skill required to get it right.

But I could be loyal to this bowl of hu tieu at Pho Le. I could promise undying fidelity to something so rich, satisfying and beautiful. I would return again and again, knowing I would never get bored of the variations each bite and spoonful presents. The allure of the street beckons me, though, so I will leave Pho Le (for now) to find adventure and variety in other bowls -- a spicy menudo, a brawny bun bo hue or a tantalizing variation on a different hu tieu from a soon-to-be discovered new menu.

For more, visit our A Federal Case archive.

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