Variety's not the spice at Pho 555 on Federal

Mark Antonation
Pho with rare steak, tripe and tendon.
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...

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.

See also:
- Pho 96 keeps it warm and simple
- Carnitas Estilo Michoacan: Take the chilaquiles and run
- Pho Le: So pho, so good (and porky)

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.

Mark Antonation
Fried chicken dumplings.
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?

Continue reading for more on Pho 555.

Location Info

Pho 555

1098 S. Federal Blvd., Denver, CO

Category: Restaurant

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My Voice Nation Help
jenna-furrr topcommenter

"Clenched chicken feet"....awesome!

Justin Eshelman
Justin Eshelman

Pho 555... Worst Pho on Federal period. It's like steakums and spaghetti. Also pretty sure they use MSG in what they call "soup"

ScubaSteve topcommenter

@Justin Eshelman 

The FDA has deemed flavor-enhancer MSG as being harmless.   Just don't use it with a heavy hand.

Mantonat topcommenter

@Justin Eshelman I have no problem with MSG. It's just another kind of salt. When used properly, it can enhance certain flavors in food. When misused, it dominates and ruins food, just like our friend NaCl.

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