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Nón Lá's vibrant papaya and beef jerky salad. Photo by Ruth Tobias

Hidden Gem: Nón Lá

Head to this Aurora Vietnamese restaurant for some mighty adventurous eating.

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When I discovered Chowhound—back at the turn of the millennium—it was a bare-bones message board for gastronomic misfits who subscribed to the front-page manifesto of its founder, Jim Leff: “Foodies eat where they’re told,” he wrote. “Chowhounds blaze trails.” I was just starting out as a food writer, and it read like a call to arms.

Today, Leff’s scrappy sanctuary for geeks “who know where the good stuff is” has morphed into a slick CBS-run resource for, you guessed it, foodies. And I’ve become all too aware that writers viewed as gastronomic trailblazers from one angle may look like cultural interlopers from another. And yet the Chowhound in me still yanks the leash: I’ll always believe that sniffing out the smallest hole-in-the-wall is a more critical mission than splurging at the latest hot spot. At the very least, I might taste a dish I’ve never tried. At best, I may actually learn something from a new (to me) experience—about the cuisine in question, about the part of the world it comes from, maybe even about myself and my own assumptions, good or bad.

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So come with me on this web series tour of hidden gems in and around Denver. And if you have any favorites off-the-beaten path, please share them with us via Facebook or Twitter.


It’s a truism among Chowhounds that the more tantalizingly unfamiliar a given dish is to the standard American palate, the more likely it is that some well-meaning server will try and talk you out of ordering it. Of course his or her skepticism only confirms that you’re on the right track—the one that leads you out of your culinary comfort zone and towards a valuable discovery.

At Nón Lá The Eating Place, I encountered the exception that proves the rule.

Granted, I inched past my comfort zone merely by entering this Aurora Vietnamese eatery. Occupying what apparently used to be a Russian-American banquet hall, the dining room is cavernous—dominated by a stage set up with band equipment and a dance floor, rung around with tall draped windows, and lined with tables placed conspicuously far apart, most of which were empty on my inaugural lunchtime visit. Sitting alone at a four-top in the middle of it all was a bit disorienting at first—as though I were the lone guest to show up at a wedding that had been called off. But the colorful, namesake conical hats festooning the bar indicated I was in the right place, as did prompt service from a gregarious gentleman who further assured me that business picked up at dinner, with live music some nights.

He was equally encouraging regarding the food. When I asked just how big the smaller-size hot pots were, he said he could finish one. In a rash suspension of disbelief, I ordered the banana blossom hot pot containing shrimp, mussels, squid, whitefish, salmon, steak, tofu and two types of cabbage alongside rice noodles and banana blossoms, which were mildly stemmy in flavor. I was halfway through it before another server approached to observe with a raised eyebrow and a grin that it was meant for four to six people. Hey, sometimes even we food writers stumble on the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom, per Blake. In any case, the broth alone—delicate yet complex, at once sweet-sour, floral, and herbaceous—was worth the embarrassment, especially as a counterbalance to balut.

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Balut is rarely found stateside, probably because its reputation precedes it. The notorious street food that spread from the Philippines through Southeast Asia is, gently put, a duck egg. Bluntly put, it’s a duck fetus, developed to various degrees of recognition before it’s boiled. I tried to seem nonchalant upon ordering it, so as to preempt any pushback a newbie might elicit. But my server didn’t bat an eye. It occurs to me now we were playing an unspoken game of chicken (so to speak).

If so, I lost. Despite the fact that balut’s flavor intrigued me—like a regular egg, only funkier and richer, bathed in a luscious tamarind sauce—a few nibbles were all I could stomach in the face of its alien appearance and startling texture, creamy and jellied by turns. Such is cultural conditioning, even to someone who’s devoted her career to overcoming it, that a duck in the shell should present a greater challenge than one on a platter.

But that’s precisely why I’d order it again, along with so much more from Nón Lá’s extensive menu, including the vibrant papaya–beef jerky salad and tangy fish-sauce wings I’ve already tried. I’ll be back to sample the stir-fried snails and the Cajun-style shellfish boils (popularized by Vietnamese fishermen on the Gulf Coast). The greater the exposure to something new, the broader the perspective and deeper the insight. For me, that’s its own kind of comfort.

13250 E. Mississippi Ave., Aurora, 730-335-6604

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