Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Sink Your Teeth into The Red Claw

If you’re drawing a blank on the concept of Vietnamese-Cajun cuisine, let me fill it in for you a little. A few years ago (as reported by, among others, the New York Times) a uniquely American type of restaurant started popping up throughout the South & along the Eastern seaboard. Based on the “boiling points,” or crawfish shacks, of Louisiana, these rustic joints shared one unexpected feature: ownership by the sons & daughters of postwar immigrants from Vietnam, who were incorporating ingredients from the homeland into the standard Gulf Coast repertoire.

Here in Denver, the very arrival of The Red Claw a year ago this month marked a simultaneous departure—namely from owner Danny Duong’s pho-focused neighbors on Federal. Serving not a drop of beef-noodle soup, The Red Claw looks every inch the classic boiling point instead, from its modest dockside motif to the tables sheathed in plastic & littered with the tin pails, crawdad tails, & chicken bones of shellfish boils & wing platters as they’re systematically dismantled by diners with gung-ho grins & sticky fingers.

But all isn’t quite as it first seems. Despite the physical resemblance they bear to their Cajun Country counterparts, these specialties are as likely to smack of tamarind, sesame, and ginger as butter & Tabasco. In fact, the wings doused in house fish sauce are among my pet picks: not breaded but nonetheless fried to a glistening golden crisp, they’re smoky, spicy, sweet, & funky all at once.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the menu falls even more firmly on the left side of the Vietnamese-Cajun hyphen—offering a whole new perspective on bar snacks, or mon nhau (“drinking food”), as one whole section of the menu is labeled. Here you’ll find snails steamed with lemongrass and pork-stuffed squid as well as fiery stirfries, accompanied by warm baguettes for scooping up every last morsel. Try the de xao lan

generous chunks of goat meat in a dark, coriander-redolent curry with chilies, peanuts, lemongrass, & mint—or the lighter, brighter, more coconutty ech xao lan,

heaped with plump, tender frog’s legs along with sliced peppers & onions. (Don’t miss the papaya jerky salad, either.)

If only the drinks lived up to the food they accompany: to round out the small selection of mass-produced wine & beer as well as dubious daiquiris, I’d love to see some ruou (Vietnamese rice liquor). Then again, given the sheer amount of booze you have to knock back to subdue the high spice of your meal, maybe cheap bottles of low-alcohol industrial lager are all for the best.

The Red Claw Seafood and Wings on Urbanspoon

A Dish a Day: Papaya Jerky Salad at The Red Claw

In my Gorging Global column for Denver Magazine, I bestowed beaucoup flowers & hearts on The Red Claw, the city’s lone Vietnamese-Cajun joint, for its killer curries & fish-sauced wings. Also among the menu’s many curiosities: papaya jerky salad. I had to try it: what, pray tell, was papaya jerky?

Nonexistent, as it turns out. The salad is composed of julienned fresh green papaya, excellent sweet-hot beef jerky (thit ko bo), chopped herbs, & little else—what appeared to be dressing was mostly just drainage. I was all for it—simple, refreshing, weird.

As always, the extent of the damage is directly proportional to the deliciousness of the storm.

Parallel Seventeen: Still Rockin’ the Latitude

Better late than never: that’s how I feel about how I feel about Mary Nguyen.

Since moving here in 2007, I’d been reading breathless reports of this angelic creature: beautiful, kind, smart, talented, ambitious…skinny…In short, she appeared on paper to be everything I didn’t want to think about while acting like a wino & stuffing my face. So I avoided Parallel Seventeen altogether; there were, I figured, plenty of downhome Vietnamese joints in town where I could do my grubby thing in ignorant bliss.

But with the opening of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, curiosity finally got the better of me—& the experience was eye-openingly encouraging. Given my lovely virgin visit there, & in light of the spate of contemporary Asian (pan-continental, East-West, etc.) joints springing up all over town—following the lead of Bones & TAG, we’ve seen ChoLon, Se7en, Japoix, Den Deli-cum-OTOTO Den (or OTOTO Food & Wine, or whatever its official name is), the brand-new i-Fish (as reported by Westword this week), & so on, & so on—I decided it was past time to give good old P17 a fighting chance.

The verdict, based on 2 lunch entrées & 2 sandwiches to go: it’s still a winner.

In the classy corner space—like Nguyen herself, petite, light, streamlined, with just a few scattered hanging sculptures in organic shapes to serve as tellingly Eastern accents—I hunkered over a half-portion of short rib that, I’m sorry to say, appears to have been struck from the menu in the space of a few short days, but nevertheless offers a bright, clear picture of the kitchen’s sensibilities.

Rubbed with coffee, the fork-tender chunk was suffused with a dark, smoky aroma & a bittersweet savor that lingered along with the coconut breath of the rice, balanced by earthy-green, quickly sauteed gailan & a scoop of spicy mixed pickle. I had the delightful feeling that I was eating with my nose as much as my mouth.

A few bites of the Director’s grilled pork loin were likewise thoroughly redolent, in this case of ginger & pickled plum. The meat was ever-so-slightly overcooked, but jasmine rice lightly fried in duck fat came out just right, a proper rejoinder to the mound of brown grease that passes for fried rice at many a take-out joint.

By contrast, the sliced roast pork on the “Saigon sandwich”—essentially bánh mì—was perfect: just touched with pink, smooth as pâté, spread with spicy aioli & covered in crisp, fresh shredded lettuce, pickled daikon & carrots, & a cilantro leaf or 2 along with sliced tomato & jalapeño. Plusher than most, the baguette kept chewiness in check. And the juicy slab of grilled chicken on the other version was equally fine.

We didn’t try our companion’s tofu sliders, but they sure were cute—too bad they, too, are no longer on the menu.

That said, the sudden switcheroo has yielded a slew of new lunch-menu temptations, including a charcuterie platter featuring, among other things, head cheese & Sapporo beer mustard as well as an awesome-sounding Asian take on a salade Niçoise with raw cured tuna, salt-roasted beets, poached quail eggs, wasabi greens, olive tapenade & miso vinaigrette. I take it all as a good sign that Nguyen is committed to keeping her flagship as fresh & fun as her junior venture. Good on her—the skinny bitch. (Oh! That’s just a jealous joke.)

Parallel Seventeen on Urbanspoon

New Saigon: Don’t Go for the Goi, but Stay for the Chay

Call me a heretic, defame my name, chop me up & throw my parts in boiling oil, I’m going to stand by my opinion that, while house of local worship New Saigon is solid, it’s no better than Dong Khanh/Saigon Bowl, at least with respect to the standards.

In fact, when it comes to salads (goi in Vietnamese), I give the edge to the latter.

SBsalad2

Saigon Bowl’s shrimp & pork salad (goi tom thit)

NSsquidsalad New Saigon’s squid salad (goi muc)

You can tell by looking that Saigon Bowl’s goi is more closely tended to—the veggies more carefully chopped & balanced, the peanuts chopped coarser for more interesting texture. You can’t tell by looking that the dressing is better as well: both are nuoc cham–like with fish sauce, acid (presumably lime juice) & sugar, but Saigon Bowl’s is a bit lighter, tarter & spicier with a daub of chili, whereas New Saigon’s errs a little too far on the merely sweet side. And the squid was a bit tough & scrappy; bigger pieces like so would not only have been prettier but less likely to overcook.

Granted, between the enormity of the menu & the constant crowd in the dining room, the prep cooks here would have to be superhuman, morphing & teleporting all over the place, to execute with both speed & precision 100% of the time. As it is, 2 different takeout orders of bun (noodles) at 2 different times can make 2 very different impressions: on a busy Saturday night, the bun tom quet with, supposedly, rice-paper-wrapped, deep-fried shrimp paste

NSshrimppastenoodles

was sloppy & dull, offering scant chopped peanuts, fried & green onions, herbs & such for the glut of rice noodles, bland with or without the one-note (sweet) nuoc cham. As for the “shrimp paste,” it was like no shrimp paste I’ve ever seen; instead, it appeared to be a very flat chopped shrimp omelet. Though the highlight of the dish, it was nonetheless a head-scratcher.

In any case, compare to the bun with grilled pork & egg roll we got on a sleepy Tuesday night.

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Boasting a much better ratio of toppings, including sufficient cilantro & mint, to noodles, it was also covered in almost jerkylike (in a pleasant way, really), thoroughly sweet-soy-marinated & grilled pork as well as chopped pork egg roll.

Consider, however, that the roll was pretty clunky, & it all adds up to the fact that for the freshest, crispest, brightest Vietnamese basics—your bun, your pho, your stirfries—my, erm, dong’s still on Dong Khanh. It’s for the jackpot of less common regional specialties that I’ll keep betting on New Saigon.

Among them is the Indian-influenced, coconut milk–based South Vietnamese ca ri (curry), served in its own pot over an open flame. The ca ri chay with tofu recently got the nod from Westword’s Lori Midson,

NStofucurry

& I myself preferred it to the ca ri tom dac biet with shrimp.

NSshrimpcurry

While the shrimp themselves were excellent—giant, firm & sweet—I’d be willing to bet they got that way by separate cooking or a last-minute add, meaning that they didn’t really have time to adapt to their environment or lend any character to it in turn; they didn’t blend into the whole, whereas the tofu did. It’s nonetheless an interesting dish, rustic in style, thick & mild with huge chunks of both white & sweet potato as well as carrot & acorn squash. But when our server volunteered his own recipe—”it’s more hotter. I cut up whole chicken, whole duck. We eat everything”—I couldn’t help but wish for a side-by-side taste test.

Do chay dac biet looked like every other Asian veggie stirfry I’ve ever had,

NSveggies
but the sauce of coconut milk–black bean sauce, creamy but with that slight funk of fermentation, really distinguished it. The veggies & tofu were neither here nor there, the former a little overdone, in fact; I wound up pouring the sauce over the accompanying rice & eating that instead, happily poking around for the scattered split beans. To what extent this is a typical preparation, by the by, is something I’m still trying to determine via this Chowhound thread; though coconut milk & black beans make for a traditional dessert, the combination is new to me in a savory context.

The same goes for the use of grape leaves in a dish of frogs’ legs (though it’s likely a byproduct of colonialism, as it was the French, bien sûr, who planted vineyards in Vietnam). Stirred up as I was by the sight of it on the menu, I was subsequently crushed to learn it’s no longer available. Settling instead for the frogs’ legs stirfried with lemongrass & onion, I expected something light & zesty; what I got was pretty oily &, again, sweeter than I’d hoped, though balanced well enough by chili & garlic.

NSfroglegs2

The meat itself was beautifully cooked, moist & tender, slipping clean & easy from the bone. For all the squawk about frogs’ legs tasting like chicken, they’re at least as evocative of a flaky, firm white fish such as cod.

Squid excepted, then, between the shrimp, the frog & the pork, I’m thinking meat/fish cookery might be the kitchen’s forte. It even dries beef with pizzazz:

NSjerky

That there is sesame-cashew jerky ($22/lb.; I got $8 worth) & it’s snazzy—soft, slow-burningly spicy & fruity too. (Fruit’s a common Asian jerky flavoring; this guy says it’s usually strawberry jam, despite labels that simply list fruit punch concentrate, like the one on the bag I got a while back at Pacific Mercantile.)

In the end, I don’t intend to join the New Saigon congregation. But I’ll certainly show up for services now & then—namely when seeking enlightenment in the form of snails & duck feet or an answer to the mysteries of suon non ram man & suon no xao thom; according to a friend, the servers discourage whiteys who ask about them (the menu offers no description of either), though Google indicates suon non are simply pork spareribs. Hmm. Anyway, the point is I’m not so much a heretic as a searcher, still holding out for not just good but transcendent Vietnamese food in Denver.

New Saigon on Urbanspoon

Quick peek at Pho on 6th

Golly, pal, is this joint spiffy! The doors are all metallic & the seats plush & the artwork

Phoon6th1

everywhere you look.

Phooon6th2

It’s sort of the 21st-century version of the Chinese restaurants in wartime noir films, where all the zoot-suited mobsters sit around whispering to dragon ladies in tight mandarin dresses behind folding screens. Good-looking as it is, I’m not sure I trust a pho shop where the lights aren’t fluorescent, the napkins aren’t paper & the servers can, in fact, be bothered. (Especially when it belongs to the owners of Thai Basil, of which I’m less than enamored.)

I am, however, sure I’ll return to find out, because the grilled beef salad I had—I know, I know, but wait’ll you get a load of the load I dumped down my gullet all weekend—was pleasant enough, with a bit of carrot-daikon slaw mixed into lettuce dressed with your basic nuoc cham, & a little fried onion (instead, oddly, of the advertised crushed peanuts) sprinkled atop the goodly spread of meat.

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Tea for two came in a pretty little painted pot.

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Meanwhile, my vegetarian companion had fresh spring rolls & veggie dumplings—which were supposedly steamed, but sure didn’t look it, glistening & golden as they were.

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He too seemed pleased enough at any rate, so I suspect I’ll swing by again soon for something more to the point. That said, Westword’s Lori Midson was right about the notable paucity of pho on the loosely Vietnamese menu given the name; there’s lots more bun, stirfry & the likes of Chinese-style jiaozi & char siu bao than there is soup. Say, bub, is this some kind of goof?

Pho on 6th on Urbanspoon

Comparing apples & crappy oranges: Dong Khanh Saigon Bowl v. Jason’s Thai Bistro

I don’t know if that’s as wholly fair as it is kinda funny, but
the point is this: just because you can’t compare Vietnamese
cuisine & Thai cuisine per se doesn’t mean you can’t mention
a prime Vietnamese joint & a middling Thai, er, bistro in the
same sentence. See, I just did.

And having happened to sample the repertoire of both
Dong Khanh Saigon Bowl
(in the Far East Center at Federal
& Alameda) & Jason’s
Thai Bistro
near DU on the same day, I couldn’t not be struck
by the culinary pride & generosity of spirit of the one in
light of the overall dumbed-down corners-cutting of the other.

My pal Larry (he’s the photographer whose stellar portfolio of
the pickles & pumelos & plucky or puckered faces of their
vendors in marketplaces around the world
I’ve referenced
before) & I spent a hyperleisurely lunch the other day
picking over the pile of tidbits & morsels & fry candy
that is Dong Khanh’s all-of-$18 signature appetizer platter the
other day—

SBapps

shrimp cakes & egg rolls & half a softshell crab on top,
grilled chicken & pork strips & cold rice noodles on
bottom, lettuce & basil & sliced cukes & shredded
carrots & daikon & peanuts, all for wrapping in rice
paper disks softened in warm water like so

SBricepaperdip

(the tricks: be quick before they get sticky on you, & keep
the mix of fillings to a minimum sizewise so they’ll hold) to
form your own fat cigars of goodness graciousness, which you dip
in the classic Vietnamese sauce, sweetish nuoc cham (think duck sauce with
class), before chomping away.

SBsauce

We also split goi tom
thit
& got this gorgeously crisp & kicky
concoction of cold sliced roast pork & plump shrimp, sprouts
& mint & sliced chilies & more basil & peanuts
drizzled in a dressing not unlike nuoc cham, but lighter &
more than a bit spicy.

SBsalad

Dim-lit styrofoam aside, how could the Director’s & my
take-out trash from Jason’s not pale in comparison to what
remained as fresh & vivid in my memory as it was on the
plate?

Mind you, I’m all for rifling through trash upon occasion—who
doesn’t get down with a gloppy gallon of sweet & sour pork or
fettuccine Alfredo or chile con queso now & then?—but, to
paraphrase Stephen King, who once said of his writing something
like, “Sure, it’s salami, but it’s good salami,” if I ask nicely
for soppressata you’d better not toss me Oscar Mayer.

And if I order crab—not krab, crab—& avocado salad, you’d
better not serve me a bunch of lettuce with a smattering of
shredded processed whitefish on top.

JTsalad

And if I order fried tofu, I want crunchy golden-brown chunks of
soybean curd, not marshmallows or cotton balls.

JTtofu

And if I order plain old steamed veggies with beef, chicken,
shrimp & scallops, I’d better not get plain old steamed
veggies with beef, chicken & shrimp. (No photo necessary, I
presume.)

To end on a positive note, though, I will give it up for the snap
pea–studded signature rolls with beef, unexpectedly stirfried
with onions until caramelized & juicy, accompanied by a
peanut sauce that actually was, as opposed to just melted peanut
butter.


JTrolls

Now that’s more like it. I mean, not like it—Dong Khanh—but adequate in &
of itself.

Saigon Bowl on Urbanspoon

How Now, Ha Noi

Upon lunching here with the Director at the invitation of a friend & Federal Boulevard flâneur (is there a nickname for this stretch of Asian & Latino markets & eateries of which I remain, as a relative newbie, blissfully unaware? Or have local developers with Dean & Deluca dreams truly yet to thrust the likes of FeBo or B-Fed upon us?), it occurred to me how deliciously delusional pho (in this case pho tai bo vien) can be.

Pho

1) These meatballs think they’re sausage, smooth & bouncy as coins on a bedsheet.

2) The noodles think they’re the bean sprouts—snappy, with hardly any give.

3) The broth thinks it’s any sort of tea—gently redolent of anise & lime, faintly bitter—except the one you might expect, ye olde freaky Victorian beef tea (i.e., broth for the smelling-salts-sniffing, laudanum-swilling, lace-encrusted set).

4) The scallions think it’s springtime in Saigon. Look how green! They’re practically reanimating—taking root & shooting forth anew right there in the bowl.

5) The medium has no idea how gut-implodingly extra-large it is.

Happy illusions all! But if this pho thinks it’s better than the bun thit nuong cha gio, it’s about to get bowled over (heh) by this other think coming.

8_2

The Director mixed in a little nuoc cham & a little chili paste &, voilà, a sort of goi was born—as in Vietnamese salad, not non-Jew, not least since lo, such a creature as might rise from the murky depths of fish sauce would more properly be termed a golem. As you can see, they don’t bear even the remotest resemblance.

Golem_3

Besides, this was tangy-sweet & salty & spicy & nutty & herbaceous & crunchy & soupy & chewy all at once. A golem is, I believe, only crunchy.

Ha Noi Pho on Urbanspoon