The west end of the city has long been ignored by the culinary elite. Finding delicious and nutritious cuisine can be challenging. Peppered with chain restaurants, and underwhelming ethnic options, 240 Union, Simms Steak House, and Cafe Jordano are a few of the lone stand outs. Discovering a truly delicious meal is always a welcomed surprise.
I first stumbled upon Pho Hau II Noodle Soup and Noodle Grill, tucked away in a strip mall on Green Mountain a few months ago just as the autumn weather gave way to cold nights and certain cravings. Yes, the pho trend is a few years old, but few things warm me up on a cold winter afternoon better than piping hot beef broth drenched noodles served with herbs, bean sprouts and tender brisket. Housed in a small room, brightly decorated with generic paintings of koi, flowers, and landscapes, and crammed with four tops and banquet tables, Pho Hau II looks a bit like a cheap cafeteria. Several wall mounted, muted televisions stream the news while relaxing classical music drowns out the noises of the partially open kitchen. Pho Hau is clean, welcoming, and warm. While I have never seen the place full, there is always a steady flow of quickly turning tables and take-out orders.
I am always greeted with a genuine smile and hello by the friendly and attentive staff. The women minding the front are always courteous and efficient with a sense of brevity that may be misconstrued as rude. But, really, they just want you to be served quickly and enjoy your meal in peace. On Saturday’s, I often enjoy a bowl of pho and a nap after an urban hike with my dogs. Servers Ivy and Hoa know my order and my favorite dish never disappoints. The pho at Pho Hau II is the best in Denver. The owner and matriarch, Cathy Tran, prides herself on her flavor rich, ultra-nutritious broth, made fresh everyday using soup bones, cuts of beef, cardamom, star anise, ginger, cinnamon and onions. The broth is ladled over a generous portion of perfectly cooked rice noodles. I like to order the thinly sliced brisket and shrimp combination. Brisket can be a little bit fatty and isn’t well trimmed but this just adds to the amazing flavor. The pho is served with a mountain of crisp bean sprouts, fragrant Thai basil, cilantro, sliced jalapeños, and lime wedges so each bowl can be perfectly customized. Three sizes are available but I have never ordered anything larger than the small which is more than enough for a satisfying meal. Pho originated in the early Twentieth century in the Nam Dinh province in northern Vietnam. It was a popular and nourishing street food most commonly served at dusk to people on their way to work. Street vendors would carry long wooden poles through the streets, with a pot of broth hanging from one end and a pot of noodles and herbs from the other. In the south provinces, vendors added bean sprouts, Thai basil, hot chili sauce and bits of meat. The very first pho restaurant, Little Saigon, opened in 1980 in the California. Two decades later, pho experienced its pinnacle of popularity with pho houses springing up all over the country. Pho Hau II offers two dozen combinations including various cuts of beef, chicken, seafood, meatballs, and a vegetable tofu vegetarian broth dish.
On my recent visit to Pho Hau II, I cozied up at a small table in the window near a gorgeous, ancient jade plant. Ivy brought over a pot of hot tea to welcome me. I mentioned how delicious their pho is and commented about the beautiful plant. Cathy rushed over to explain her special broth and then cut of a branch from the Jade, offering it to me for good luck. With her encouragement I decided to deviate from my traditional choices and explore other options on the menu. I love spring rolls but too often restaurants scrimp on the stuffing and fill them with mushy rice noodles. Today, I was delighted to find the freshly made spring rolls filled with julienne carrots, cucumbers, beef, lettuce, basil and whole shrimp. The accompanying peanut sauce was a bit too thin, sweet, and lacked flavor but the rolls didn’t really need sauce. The shrimp tempura was the usual frozen fare, but instead of deep frying to reheat, these were oven baked to a toasty crispness and drizzled with a blend of fish sauce and honey. The tempura was garnished with a refreshing pickled carrot and cucumber salad. Next I tried the Bun Tom Thit Nuong: a grilled shrimp and pork noodle bowl. The rice vermicelli serves as a bed for the smoky grilled shrimp and juicy strips of pork, crisp lettuce and radish, bean sprouts, and lime. A bit of tangy sweet nuoc mam sauce is spooned over the dish to finish and blend the flavors. I also tried the Ga Nuong Rau Son Ban Trang, the grilled chicken breast marinated in lemongrass and sesame oil. The chicken was slightly overcooked and dry but the char grilled marks added flavor and texture to the dish. The chicken is served with rice paper wrappers, an assortment of fresh vegetables, pickled carrots, basil, cilantro and marinated rice noodles so you can build your own spring rolls. This dish also comes with a crispy, classic pork and vegetable egg roll. Each table has an assortment of fish sauce, hot chili sauce and the obligatory bottle of Sriracha so you can as little or as much heat as you desire.
Too full for a dessert of fried bananas and honey or a lychee green tea Boba drink, I finished my meal with a strong Vietnamese espresso served with sweetened condensed milk and ice. Just the right touch to tame the heat and perk me up.
With their spare menu, Pho Hau II focuses on Vietnamese street and casual cuisine but also serves classic appetizers like egg rolls and crispy shrimp and pork paste, a selection of salads, a Vietnamese Grilled Sandwich, and a succulent Crispy Chicken Leg Quarter. The specialty of the house: The Pho Hau Grilled Combo including grilled chicken, pork, and shrimp along with pork paste, tempura shrimp, and egg rolls, all served over marinated rice vermicelli, with fresh vegetables and herbs, is generous enough to share on date night or with the kids. I firmly believe the pho, with its incredible broth is the star of this show. If you are looking for healthy, gluten free, or even a vegetarian meal, check out Pho Hau II. Just south of 6th Avenue on Union, it is the perfect après ski meal after spending Sunday afternoon stuck in ski traffic. Take your Saturday morning soccer team in for a warming lunch, or call ahead and grab some pho to go. You won’t be disappointed.
Pho Hau II is a family friendly, alcohol free establishment, opened from 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM, seven days a week.
12089 West Alameda Parkway, #G6, Lakewood, CO 80228