Cafe Society

Warming trends: The bare-bones Pho Duy provides warm comfort food just in time for winter

I was sweating. Profusely. Not even my clinical-strength deodorant could hold back the flood, and I kept my arms pinned firmly to my sides so as not to alert my boyfriend to my predicament. We were both sniffling, and tears threatened to start streaking down my face.

"Okay, well, I guess that's it," I said. He nodded, eyes down.

I dropped my chopsticks into the nest of rice noodles swimming in a silky beef broth that I'd doctored with thick slices of crisp jalapeño and ribbon after ribbon of spicy sriracha sauce. The fiery hot broth had done a number on my sinuses, and I was a mess.

I couldn't have been happier.

Earlier that day, the biting chill of winter had finally, really sunk its teeth into the Mile High City, and the change of weather made me fixate on pho, that hearty soup that evolved from a marriage of Chinese and French cuisines just over a century ago in northern Vietnam. Today pho is ubiquitous in that country. In Denver, it's hawked at numerous shops around town, including a handful of joints that line the strip malls of Federal Boulevard. There's only one place that really satiates my pho craving, though, and that's Pho Duy.

Tucked into one of those dilapidated shopping areas on Federal and flanked by an impossible-to-maneuver parking lot, this shop has been slinging pho for nearly two decades. Eventually, family members and friends of the founder, Duy Nguyen, took note of its success, and opened shops under the same name across the Front Range, including Aurora, Broomfield and Greeley.

While some of its cousins have more opulent digs, the original Pho Duy is a pretty bare-bones place. A potted plant sits in front of the entrance, requiring diners to duck under its unruly branches as they step inside. Beyond the bamboo forest, the sparsely decorated room features a couple of tacky posters hawking boba slushies and a vast mural of Vietnam's countryside along the south wall. Shellacked tables are littered throughout the space in ever-changing arrangements. A couple of long ones often play host to large groups; diners who prefer more intimacy can opt for spots along the walls. Every seat is almost always filled, with staff scurrying through the crowd to take orders, unceremoniously deliver dishes and then clear away the remnants just in time to seat the next group of diners coming in from the cold.

The menu is bare-bones, too. A couple of noodle and rice specials are posted inconspicuously on the back wall behind the cash register — ensuring that you'll never see them before you pay your check — but otherwise, there are just twenty or so versions of pho, as well as a couple of appetizers and numerous drink options, including strange, salty sodas, Vietnamese coffee and dozens of flavors of boba slushies.

Despite the chill, I'd started my feast that night the way I always start it: with a red-bean boba slushie — thick, slightly sweet and slightly earthy, not unlike pecan pie filling if it were liquefied and frozen. If it's really cold, I'll occasionally order Vietnamese coffee, brewed on the table through a filter that resembles a miniature soup pot. The hot drink is thick and sweet, thanks in part to a generous pour of condensed milk. But I only go for the coffee if I'm really frozen, because I get a giddy, childlike thrill sucking the gummy tapioca balls of boba through the fat straw, masticating them into submission as they try desperately to cling to my molars.

We'd also ordered spring rolls, which bundled lettuce, bean sprouts, fine vermicelli noodles, a thin strip of flank steak and shrimp inside gummy white rice wrappers. Pho Duy's spring rolls always taste fresh and deceptively light — but after I inhaled one six-inch roll, along with plenty of the sweet, nutty sauce made of hoisin and peanuts, I'd resisted grabbing for another. I've learned that those things expand in your stomach.

And I wanted to save my stomach for the main event: a steaming-hot bowl of pho.

Historical accounts suggest the first renditions of the dish were beef noodle soups made in the countryside near Hanoi, rich broths filled with clumps of long, thin rice noodles and chunks of brisket and steak. This was the first time the Vietnamese had used beef in a dish; before the French occupied the region, cattle had been regarded as beasts of burden, used to perform labor rather than provide victuals.

Still, the soup spread quickly, taking on new characteristics as it moved south. Noodle sizes varied. So did accoutrements — southerners added crisp bean sprouts, fresh basil, citrusy lime and thorny ngo gai, also called culantro, with a flavor reminiscent of cilantro. Closer to Saigon, cooks liberally sauced their soups, adding chili pastes, fish sauce and hoisin in large doses, enriching the broth with sumptuous flavors and giving it a sweet, tangy, spicy profile. But one element remained constant: Pho purists still maintained that real versions of the soup must contain beef broth, the base for cuts of steak, meatballs and tripe.

Pho Duy does offer a couple of shrimp and vegetable options and will let you switch out noodles, substituting a fatter, chewier version or clear glass noodles for the more traditional offering. But most of the pho that the kitchen cooks up, including the chicken version, pho ga, starts with dark and pungent beef broth, with depth added by slices of onions, cooked soft, their flavor infused into the liquid. That base hosts thin strips of peppery, tender flank steak; chewy chunks of tendon and textured strips of tripe, kissed with sweetness. The meats play against the nest of bouncy noodles in a harmonious balance, comforting and warming.

I'll occasionally go for broke and order pho tai nam gau gan sach, which incorporates both rare and well-done steak, braised brisket, tendon and tripe, a dish so laced with meat that I almost need extra noodles to balance everything out. I'm also partial to the pho bo vien; its dense, fragrant meatballs are an ideal foil for the herbs and spices I like to add.

This cold night, though, I'd stuck with a hearty classic, pho tai chin, a blend of brisket so tender it surrendered in the mouth with just the slightest coaxing of the tongue, and thin cuts of rare steak, red center visible through the translucent broth when they arrived at the table, but cooked through by the end of the meal. I'd piled on the herbs, squeezing lime into the broth and crushing the basil against my palm to increase the aromatics before I finally squeezed the sriracha, which provided a guttural, earthy burn in addition to the clean spice of the fresh jalapeños. Pho Duy offers a housemade chili sauce, too, but I love sriracha so much that I rarely ask for it.

Pho prepared to my liking, I'd started stuffing bundles of noodles into my mouth, sucking up loose ends and slurping the savory, piquant liquid, cooled enough by the herbs that it could be eaten in gulps. (If you're a glutton for punishment, Pho Duy will steam your bean sprouts, ensuring that the puffs of steam rolling off the surface of your bowl continue to rise even after you've added your accompaniments.)

The phos come in three sizes, and even the medium seems like a never-ending portion. And this night, as on so many other nights before it, my sinuses forced me to surrender long before I'd emptied the bottom of my bowl.

A few minutes later, after we wiped the tears from our eyes and our breathing returned to almost normal, we became aware once again of the constant influx of diners coming in for comfort food. And though Pho Duy always seems able to accommodate everyone, we felt guilty camping at our table. So we paid our check at the counter, the smiling cashier bowing her head slightly in thanks, and exited into the night: warm, happy and fortified completely against the cold.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk