It's astounding what kinds of ingredients are available for cooking Vietnamese food these days. I was just in Denver, Colorado, this past weekend for the annual International Association of Culinary Professionals conference. At the first chance that I got, I escaped to explore the Vietnamese markets, shops, and restaurants.
I'd heard that the Vietnamese community in Denver is small, and locals were a bit apologetic about it, but nevertheless, I took a cab ride to South Federal Street in an ethnically mixed part of town. There were Mexican taco, burrito, and torta stands, a handful of Chinese restaurants, but a surprising number of Vietnamese businesses, too. It was freezing this weekend, around 30 degrees F with 40 mile per hour winds. Walking along South Federal with my friends Nathan and Jeremy, my ears felt frozen stiff and hurt. We'd wrapped our heads in scarves and look like Babushkas.
I can't tell you how relieved we were to set foot inside the Little Saigon Market (Cho Saigon, in the Far East Center shopping center at the corner of South Federal and Alameda). Our ears were ringing and we felt startlingly disoriented for about 10 minutes after being tossed around in the wind. (We did notice that we were the only people foolish enough to be walking on Federal Street last Saturday!) Nevertheless, we began walking every aisle and scanning the inventory. For the Little Saigon Market's size, roughly twice that of a large 7-Eleven, it was one of the best stocked markets for Vietnamese, Chinese, and Southeast ingredients that I've seen in recent years.
The condiment, noodles and spices section covered Vietnamese, Indonesia, Thai, Filipino, and Chinese needs. Spices from Vietnam, such as cinnamon and ground star anise, were right there on the shelves. The herb selection wasn't at its perky best but could be revived. Rau ram, kinh gioi, tia to, ngo gai, and even la lot! (Check the Vietnamese herb primer if you’re not familiar with these herbs, or if you need a tip on keep herbs super fresh.) Warm soft tofu was scooped right out of a giant 30-gallong stockpot into plastic containers for takeaway purchases. The fish sauce, rice paper, and rice inventory was downright respectable. There was warm, just-made Vietnamese sausages (gio lua, cha, and nem) made locally, as well as some stuff trucked in from Westminster, California. I was delighted for Denverites, and my friend Nathan (a Chinese-Canadian) and I concluded that if we moved to Denver, we could cook good Asian food there.
Overall, there was a certain down-home quality about the markets, bakeries, banh mi shops and noodle joints that I visited this weekend. They were more akin to the old-fashioned family operations that we fear disappearing these days as Asian parents dissuade their kids from continuing the family business and pursuing careers as doctors, dentists, and pharmacists.
But perhaps my impression of the South Federal area merely reflects Denver itself. The Mile High City is a friendly, spacious city that represents the American West – a pioneering place full of far-ranging possibilities and potential.
If you're familiar with Denver and have tips, share them so that on my next trip to Denver, I'll have an even better time!