Dining

The New Old Thing

Could Capitol Hill’s newest Vietnamese restaurant win over a pho snob?

April 2011

A family recipe passes from generation to generation like a unique genetic code. Vietnamese pho, a soup of rice noodles bathed in a salty-sweet beef broth, is one such cherished recipe. The secret is in the complex broth—which often contains 20 or more ingredients, including lemongrass (which provides tartness), anise (depth), and fish sauce (saltiness). But while some elements are the same, each chef’s recipe varies slightly. The cultlike following pho restaurants inspire is, well, familial. I’m one of those devoted fans: On a weekly basis, I trek across town to my favorite pho den, the Aurora location of Pho 79. At least I did—until Pho-natic opened across from the state Capitol in August.

When I first walked into the sunny dining room, complete with jade-colored walls and windows facing Colfax Avenue, the sweet smell of a simmering soup helped assuage my fears that this would be a ho-hum facsimile of my staple dish. My nose was right. Oi Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant whose family has been making pho for more than 40 years, helms the kitchen. Her broth is vaguely sweet, the noodles are soft without being mushy, and each bowl is served with the customary bean sprouts, lime wedges, Thai basil sprigs, jalapeños, Sriracha, and hoisin. I savored the heady broth, the crisp, fresh herbs, top-quality meat, and the soothing vibe of the joint. By the time I reached the bottom of that first bowl, I knew I’d found a new pho hangout.

Since then, I make a weekly trip to Pho-natic (though I still visit Pho 79 on occasion). I’ve even ventured away from the beloved soup to explore the rest of the menu, which is filled with classic Vietnamese dishes such as noodle bowls, rice platters, and potent drip coffee. I’ve found favorites in the tightly wrapped spring rolls (pork, shrimp, lettuce, and rice noodles), the lemongrass-marinated grilled pork, and the fried tofu tossed in a tangy chile sauce. Best of all, each dish is infused with Nguyen’s family legacy, which makes me feel like one of the brood. 229 E. Colfax Ave., 303-832-3154, phodenver.com