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...
Last week I ate at the northernmost restaurant on Federal Boulevard within Denver city limits, thus completing my stated mission of eating my way from south to north at every restaurant on the street. New restaurants opened in my wake, though, and as I glanced at their signs in my rearview mirror I realized it wouldn't feel right unless I went back and covered those, too. Plus, I was still hungry. So, like the snake eating its tail, I circled back to the beginning -- the less-than-auspicious moment where I couldn't even get a burrito at the long-gone Bubba Chinos at 3000 South Federal. The newest member of the neighborhood club, Boost Burger, has taken the place of the garish and graffitied green chile garage with a cool blue color scheme and a gearhead theme to attract a new customer base. This, along with the now popular Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant and the up-and-coming Pho Market, would punctuate the final sentence in my year-and-half-long West Side story.
Boost Burger opened just a couple of weeks ago, but has been building a lunch crowd due to its proximity to Colorado Heights University and a nearby warehouse district teeming with hard-working and hungry mechanics, contractors and tile salesmen. Boost is definitely not trying to grab a share of the trendy fancy-pants burger market, but instead offers a slightly more original and appealing alternative to the fast-food giants. The menu board is a bit confusing at first, with almost all items given automotive monikers. The printed menus on the counter offer clarification: The Low Rider is a Juarez-style burger topped with a ham slice and a laterally bisected hot dog, milkshakes are labeled Synthetic Blends, and chili cheese fries are called, unintuitively, Racing Stripes. The burgers themselves are organized by patty quantity, with four being the upper limit listed (although those desperate for a fifth might be able to strike a bargain). I ordered a single, which came on a soft, eggy bun with a smear of house sauce of the ketchup-mayo-relish variety. The chili cheese fries were deep golden, crunchy and topped with a mild red chili over a creamy cheese sauce. With so few burgers available outside of the national chains on Federal, Boost adds variety to this southern stretch dominated by Mexican fare. Keep reading for the next stop on Federal Boulevard. A few miles up the road, Pho Market has made itself at home in the spot vacated when Pho 95 moved to more spacious digs. The owners took their time redesigning the dining room, adding tile flourishes, a bold wine-and-mustard paint scheme, and touches of ornamental stainless steel.
This being my second lunch, I wasn't much in the mood for a sloshing basin of soup, so Amy and I split a broken rice plate with a thin marinated pork chop, a mound of shredded pork skin, a wedge of egg loaf, and a kaleidoscope of bright herbs and sliced veggies. I've had shredded pork skin, or bi, in banh mi before, but it was a pleasant surprise on this dish, especially with its nutty coating of toasted rice powder. The pork chop, marinated in a mild chile and fish sauce blend, fell from the bone with the slightest fork pressure. The curious egg loaf (cha trung) contained ground pork and squiggles of rice noodle compressed beneath an odd orange skin, but its flavor was mild and the texture was perfect for soaking up the tangy nuoc cham sauce. A lavender-hued taro smoothie sans boba pearls -- my favorite in the array of smoothie flavors -- rounded out this multi-stop lunch and put me over the edge from contented to stuffed.
Keep reading for the next stop on Federal Boulevard. Although it was to be the final stop in an ill-advised triple-header lunch march, a locked door at Lotus with a scrawled note promising to re-open by 6 p.m. turned out to be a welcome reprieve, so we instead returned for a late dinner. Lotus, since Gretchen Kurtz featured it in her weekly restaurant review, has become a gathering place for Vietnamese neighbors, practicing Buddhists and outdoorsy Colorado vegans looking for flavorful and exotic alternatives to ubiquitous veggie burgers.
Banh khot,often referred to as Vietnamese cupcakes, are generally more like miniature party omelets topped with shrimp and crisped shards of shallot. Lotus manages to create an even more rich and custardy texture by omitting the egg and opting instead for coconut milk to bind the rice flour cups, while cubes of silky tofu take the place of shrimp. Swaddled in fresh green leaf lettuce and a sheaf of shiso and basil, the banh khot combined the richness of fried batter with the sharp complexity of anise, mint and cinnamon notes from the raw herbs.
For an entrée, we split an order of pad Thai, not because I assume that all Southeast Asian cooking is the same, but because we wanted to see what the kitchen could do with something outside the typical Vietnamese canon. A sticky mass of rice noodles coated in a peanut sauce with just a hint of background tanginess may not have been the best pad Thai I've encountered in Denver, but it had a rustic, homemade charm that could stand in for comfort food in much the same way that pho has become Denver's go-to cure-all for the blues, the blahs and the bad weather. Three meals in one day: a Southwestern-tinged but otherwise all-American burger joint; a pork-forward Vietnamese noodle house with a long menu encompassing more than just soup; a cheery but sincere vegetarian alternative where the mindful peace enhanced by birdsong and burbling water can be shattered by a table of boisterous and oblivious Front Range hippies exhibiting their crunchy Colorado-style, ahem, charm.
These three restaurants each offer something new and welcome on Federal, even when cloaked in familiarity -- a new coat of paint on time-worn walls, a new menu in an old strip mall, new smiling faces trying to lure veteran diners of a street packed with options. Amid the competition, the almost humorous proliferation of low-end dining, and the jockeying cars cruising, careening and occasionally crashing, the signs call out to stop, for just a few minutes, to slow down long enough to realize that change -- refurbishment and rehabilitation -- is as inevitable here as a platter of tacos or a bowl of pho.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.