Variety's not the spice at Pho 555 on Federal
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 Pho with rare steak, tripe and tendon.
Isn't there a saying that if you don't have anything bad to say, don't say anything at all? There should be. I don't have anything bad to say about Pho 555, but I can't seem to muster up much enthusiasm, either. On the day I stopped in, facing another bowl of pho in a place that hadn't earned the reputation of Pho Duy, the non-stop crowds of Pho 95, or the critical acclaim of Pho 79 was a difficult prospect. I tried to keep a positive attitude, but my eyes kept wandering from the squat, yellow-roofed joint on the corner of Federal and Mississippi toward its neighbor, Star Kitchen, which by a quirk of strip-mall design is set just far enough back from Federal that it has been slapped with a Mississippi street address and so is off-limits in my quest for tastiness along Denver's tastiest boulevard.
I cheered myself up by thinking how much a good bowl of pho can be like hunkering down under a warm quilt as the Colorado skies grow angry and the wind snatches up handfuls of grit to throw in your face. I reminded myself that even the lowliest pho shops generally have a few house specials to showcase other Vietnamese specialties. On Pho 555's menu, it turned out to be banh uot cha lua -- steamed rice flour rolls with pork "meatloaf." It also turned out that this was a weekend-only specialty, so I was out of luck. Pho it was, but at least the options included seafood pho with fish and shrimp balls (pho do bien), chicken pho (pho ga), and a vegetarian option with tofu.
Inspiring? Adventurous? Unique? Not really. A starter of fried chicken dumplings was satisfying, but the dumplings were most likely not house-made. My pho with rare steak, shreds of pungent tripe, and chewy slabs of tendon cut thick like dominoes was warming but mild. I had to lean in close to detect the aroma of spices, ginger, and onion that normally jump up at you like the family dog -- exuberant and barely restrainable -- and I missed the cilantro-like saw leaf on the plate of garnishes that held the other standards of lime, basil, jalapeno and bean sprouts.
The kitchen showed a defter touch with the rich, slightly sweet and perfumed broth of the seafood pho. A touch of something reminiscent of vanilla added depth and subtle complexity when combined with a few squirts of lime. If you haven't had Vietnamese shrimp or fish balls, imagine something simultaneously dense and spongy with a finely processed texture like Spam or bologna, but with an intense fishy flavor instead of pork and sodium. A bite of fish ball with rice noodle and a little Sriracha sauce is not unlike eating Spam musubi -- the combination of textures from childhood sandwiches and exotic flavors and ingredients creates a wickedly fun sensory dissonance. Is it comfort food, a crazed experiment or the everyday food of people just like us, only from a different climate and geography?
Mark Antonation Fried chicken dumplings.
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