Bazaar things afoot at Celestial Chinese Bakery and Vinh Xuong Vietnamese Bakery
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 Baked and fried buns from Celestial Chinese Bakery.
On a recent muggy, aimless Saturday I met my friends Shane and Jessica and their young daughter at the Far East Center for lunch. We didn't have much of a plan, so after making a quick 360-degree spin in the middle of a parking lot alive with the sights and sounds of a market bazaar, we decided to grab a few items from Celestial Chinese Bakery and some banh mi from Vinh Xuong Vietnamese Bakery. Since neither place has tables, we eventually took our haul to a grassy strip under the shade of a locust tree at the back of the shopping center.
The two bakeries are very similar in atmosphere: cluttered, a little dingy, and foggy with the intoxicating aromas of fresh baked buns, barbecued meats and a potpourri of unidentifiable spices. Celestial distinguishes itself with a glassed-in display of barbecued duck and pork; whole mahogany-hued birds and various pig parts hang from hooks under hot lamps that keep the crisped skins gleaming with a slick of tantalizing fat. The display case and every inch of counter space are jam-packed with sweet and savory baked or steamed buns, rolls, tarts, cookies and dumplings. With so much to choose from, it's easy to just stand and stare like a dumbstruck kid in the Disney World gift shop. Tags in Chinese, Vietnamese and English (for those items with English names) are helpful. We were able to pick out barbecued pork buns, steamed chicken and mushroom buns, a couple of sesame seed balls and a humorously named banh hotdog for Shane and Jess's daughter. (Although honestly, what adult wouldn't love a hot dog wrapped in tender, sweet pastry dough?)
The bakery also distinguished itself with pots of uncovered meat parts sitting on the floor in front of the counter, in full view of customers. I'm far from squeamish and I love the open-market atmosphere that gives many of the strip malls on Federal a distinct atmosphere of far-off lands, but being presented with buckets of pig and chicken parts (destined for the trash or the oven -- I couldn't tell) conjured visions of days stuck in a hotel bed with stomach cramps rather than fantasies of succulent cuts of seasoned, grilled or baked meats. I understand that the bland and sterile appearances of shopping-mall food courts across America don't guarantee food safety and in many cases hide worse violations from public view, but health department regulations are fairly straightforward in this town and it's not in any way difficult to keep meats covered, refrigerated and off the floor.
Mark Antonation Jam-packed display cases at the Celestial Bakery.
After a short walk past a couple of shops and markets overstocked with all manner of home decor, cookware, Asian specialty foods and tropical produce -- some of it spilling out onto the sidewalk -- we arrived at Vinh Xuong, whose shelves were similarly burgeoning with baked goods in addition to packaged sweets, canisters of spiced jerky and Styrofoam trays of colored sticky rice.
After we ordered our Vietnamese sandwiches, the clerk mentioned that they are a cash-only establishment (their second location on West Alameda accepts credit cards), so I had the privilege of adding another can't-miss Federal Boulevard experience to this excursion: crossing the intersection of Federal and Alameda on foot on a busy Saturday and then standing in line at the drive-up ATM for some quick cash. After a dash back through an obstacle course of construction cones, idling trucks and abandoned shopping carts, we paid for our three banh mi -- chicken, meatball and barbecued pork -- and chose a shady spot in the grass to enjoy our picnic.
Mark Antonation If you need jack fruit, look no farther than the Far East Center.