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...
Mark Antonation Hu tieu mi nam vang - pork broth and noodles with heart
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.
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.
Mark Antonation Egg rolls with veggies and lettuce wraps.
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.