Cafe Society


During the Vietnam War, one of the best-known roads in Saigon was Pasteur Street, a bustling avenue of commerce that housed a restaurant fairly famous in its own right--Pho Pasteur, a place frequented by locals who were not averse to visits from American soldiers, my father included, who'd fill up on extremely cheap pho as a break from military rations. It was this restaurant that the Vo and Tran families remembered when they decided to add their own Pho Pasteur to their repertoire.

The Trans, who are Chinese but lived in Vietnam, owned several restaurants in Saigon before they moved to the United States in 1978 and ultimately opened two Chinese places--the Treasure Pot in Arvada and China Bowl in Denver. From the time May Tran first met her Vietnamese husband, Hieu Vo, they talked about opening a Vietnamese restaurant that would offer casual dining and affordable food. "We wanted the prices to be reasonable," May says, "just like they are in Saigon."

The truly low prices aren't the only thing they got right. While Pho Pasteur's food isn't the most sophisticated, it's plentiful, made with quality ingredients and often involving the intense flavoring associated with Vietnamese cuisine, particularly that of south-sitting Saigon.

In fact, the seasonings in some of the dishes, most notably the soups, are absolutely inspired. Pho Pasteur serves twelve kinds of pho, in sizes ranging from "small bowl" (about five or six cups) to "X-large bowl." We tried a large bowl of pho dac biet ($4.50) with rice noodles (soups can also be ordered in egg-noodle versions). The broth, which was thin but rich and redolent of garlic, housed slices of rare steak, chunks of brisket, strips of flank and overly large pieces of tripe that, though difficult to work around, boosted the soup's flavor. Chopped scallions and a few sprigs of cilantro and parsley floated on top; whole basil leaves, lime segments and soft red chile peppers came on the side. But the real star was the accompanying nuoc mam, which translates as fish sauce but is actually more of a fish juice: Anchovies are layered with salt in large barrels for about six months, and the resulting liquid is one of Vietnam's most valuable seasonings. My last slurp of rice noodles and nuoc mam was incredibly heady.

Even more potent was the hu tieu mi ($3.95 for a small bowl), which is sometimes called Saigon soup. Another dash of nuoc mam accented the hu tieu's other seafaring components: Shrimp, squid, pollock (imitation crabmeat) and a ground-fish cake swam with nothing more than scallion bits and rice noodles in a stock that tasted faintly of chicken, beef and vegetables.

We were bowled over by our third soup, the canh chua ca bong lau ($7.95 for a small). Its unusual combination of pineapple and tomato chunks had been augmented by slices of sea bass, bean sprouts, mint and basil for a sweet-and-sour effect heightened by softened, hot red chile peppers.

After the soups, the rest of Pho Pasteur's main dishes seem very uncomplicated. The menu lists more than a hundred entrees, some as plain as "chicken sauteed with ginger" and "beef sauteed with straw mushrooms." There's a reason for this simplicity, though: According to our waiter, the owners want to serve up a lot of food--fast. Because most of the sauces are easy, rapid reductions of ingredients such as garlic, tomato paste, sugar, peanut butter, water and nuoc mam, the kitchen appears to have no trouble whipping them up and whisking them out.

Our order of beef sauteed with asparagus ($6.95) certainly arrived quickly. The platter was piled with beef and asparagus tips in a nebulous brown sauce. It was tasty, if not particularly exciting. We also tried the tom xao with broccoli ($7.95): jumbo shrimp with the tails still on, surrounded by crisp-tender vegetables in a slightly sweet but otherwise nondescript sauce. Rice, of course, came on the side, as did a bowl of zippy nuoc cham, a mixture of garlic, red chile peppers, lime, sugar and nuoc mam. Pho Pasteur's blend is heavily and pleasantly on the sweet side.

So is its peanut sauce, which considerably livened up the spring roll ($3 for two), a standard-issue rice-paper package stuffed with rice noodles, shredded lettuce, two tiny shrimp, a piece of pork and several spearmint leaves. The egg rolls ($3 for two) were better; their more complicated ingredients--ground pork, carrots, rice noodles, shrimp, onions and mushrooms, ground into an interesting sausagelike texture and wrapped in rice papers--benefited from a fast frying in light oil.

Although the restaurant offered no desserts during our visits, its lengthy beverage list more than atoned for their absence. In addition to serving such standbys as lemonade and iced espresso, Pho Pasteur tempts the adventurous with salty plum soda and avocado and green-bean shakes. We started out slow, with lychees with ice ($1.75); the ice quickly chilled the sweet syrup, and a long spoon made extracting the heavy fruits a breeze. The fruit in the salty plum soda ($2) was handled less gently--plum puree had been added to soda water liberally laced with salt. The shakes were easier to swallow (even if their descriptions weren't). The green-bean shake ($2) came out with only a touch of green color and even less bean flavor--the concoction was so sweet you quickly forgot what you were drinking. Despite having less sugar, the avocado shake ($2.25) worked better; mashing a very ripe avocado had given the beverage a tempting, creamy texture.

By far our most unusual shake was durian, a fruit originally from Malaysia and one of the smelliest things around, with a stench one co-worker likens to natural gas. Inside the rind is a sticky pulp with enough flavor to overcome the odor--for some people, at least. Pho Pasteur's durian shake ($2.25) was quite delicious if you didn't breathe and drink at the same time (a long straw helped). May Tran also uses the fruit--as well as yellow beans and other unlikely vegetables--to make ice cream that the restaurant gives away with dinners on the weekends.

Which makes Pho Pasteur a sweet deal, indeed.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner