Little bundles of joy at Gio Cha Cali
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 Tightly wrapped mystery bundles.
With the space that previously housed Pho 95 still vacant, I've now covered every full-fledged restaurant on the block of Federal Boulevard between Mississippi and Tennessee. That's one full-service Vietnamese restaurant, two pho houses, a banh mi sandwich joint, and a Chinese barbecue specializing in whole duck and pig. Along the way, I've also stopped in for some fresh duck eggs at the New Saigon Market and made a couple of questionable driving decisions both entering and exiting the strip-mall parking lot. But there are also a couple of places on the east side of Federal that, while not exactly restaurants, still serve up house-made items to-go that could easily fill a picnic basket or serve as the basis for some traditional Vietnamese recipes. The one that piqued my curiosity is Gio Cha Cali; it's a little bodega that peddles a variety of steamed and fried sausages and dumpling-like snacks variously wrapped in banana leaves, tin foil or plastic wrap.
Gio Cha Cali isn't much to look at, inside or out. Most of the food items are laid out bake-sale style on a couple of tables pushed together and covered with a thin tablecloth, or else stacked in neat bundles on storage shelves straight from Home Depot. A few refrigerated items and canned beverages fill a display case against one wall. Small laminated cards give descriptions in Vietnamese and (fortunately) English of the tightly wrapped cylinders and disks that are otherwise recognizable only by colored ribbons trussed around many of the items.
Mark Antonation My kind of bake sale.
Before I entered the place, I knew I would be plunging into the deep end of ethnic cuisine here in Denver, so I did a little research (meaning that I Googled, Youtubed and Wikied every recipe, ingredient and video demo I could find) in hopes that it would help me recognize the names and appearance of some of the food. The most important fact I stumbled across is that wherever you see the phrase "gio cha," you'll find sausage, or what may more appropriately be called pork roll. Places that sell gio cha will generally also sell different varieties of banh, which translates roughly as "cake." But the word banh can be used as a descriptor for foods as vastly different as dense and familiar wheat-flour baguettes (banh mi) and thin sheets of rice paper (banh trang). The common theme seems to be food made from flour doughs or batters, whether a French-influenced sandwich, a steamed glutinous rice dumpling or a pan-fried crepe.
Mark Antonation Colored ribbons mark the varieties of sausage.
I tried to balance my choices between rice-based and meat-based options, but I wasn't really sure what I'd ended up with until I got home and unwrapped everything. My choices included banana-leaf wrapped banh Tet and banh gio, foil wrapped gio lua sausage, a disk of cha bo tieu, and a Styrofoam tray of banh khot -- miniature shrimp crepes I'd fallen in love with at Vietnam Grill across the street.
The pyramidal banh gio contained a glutinous rice dumpling filled with ground pork and sliced mushroom. It jiggled a little like extra-firm jelly as I cut through the smooth layer of rice dough into the moist filling, which was mildly seasoned and homey, with the flavors of my Ukrainian grandmother's kitchen: salt, pepper, garlic, and not much else. The flavor of the banh Tet was much more exotic, with a grainier rice layer surrounding mung bean paste and shredded pork. The rice in this roll was so sticky that it took considerable effort to remove all the banana-leaf fibers, and even more effort to slice the roll into disks without mangling the whole thing. But the earthy flavor of the mung beans and the slightly fatty pork shreds came together to form a chubby, hearty and rustic version of a sushi roll, especially when dipped in a little fish-sauce-based nuoc cham.
Mark Antonation Banh khot with a side of nuoc mam.