Pho Le: So pho, so good (and porky)
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.
Mark Antonation Pho Le's assortment of condiments
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.
Mark Antonation Shrimp pho
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.
Mark Antonation Pho Le on a snowy night.
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