Denver lowkey feels like a pho mecca. At least, that’s how it seems on DoorDash.
There’s Top Pho, Pho 63, Pho 75, Pho 555, Tony Pho and What the Pho, just to name a few.
Pho is a Vietnamese soup dish, not to be confused with ramen. The noodles in pho are softer and the broth is fresher and lighter in color and feeling. It’s also considered Vietnam’s national dish.
According to history and Todd Bradley, a professed foodie and pho fanatic, around 10,000 Vietnamese refugees settled in Denver in the ’70s and ’80s fleeing from the Vietnam War.
Some started businesses along South Federal and later Little Saigon and the Far East Market were born.
Now Bradley doesn’t live in Westwood or Athmar Park. He lives in Capitol Hill, so heading to Little Saigon is a little bit of a trek.
But his pho and, most importantly, his Vietnamese food needs are met by Anise Modern Vietnamese Eatery.
“Denver has a ton of Vietnamese restaurants,” Bradley said. “There’s a lot of places that just sell pho and they’re all a bit cookie-cutter. But Anise has more than just pho and banh mi sandwiches. The prices are a bit higher because their rent is probably higher but everything’s made to order. You can tell a little more care has gone into it.
Anise is a family-owned shop on the corner of Lincoln Street and E. 9th Avenue in Capitol Hill/Golden Triangle. It isn’t a bustling area, except for the cars speeding down Lincoln, though there’s a mix of residential and commercial buildings. Across the street is a 7-Eleven, an odd-looking condominium with storefronts at the bottom and a desolate-looking gym.
When you walk into Anise, a large bar greets you and a short set of steps leads to more sitting in the back. It’s calming… like a bowl of pho.
But it hasn’t been a calming time for chef Quyen Trinh and her husband Long Nguyen. Trinh and Nguyen became first-time restaurateurs when they opened Anise in May 2019.
And less than a year later, the pandemic arrived forcing businesses everywhere to close, and for some, close for good.
“It’s tough. I cannot lie,” Nguyen said. “I remember when the governor issued the first shutdown… we shed some tears because there were a lot of unknowns.”
Times are still unknown, as the delta variant causes hospitalization surges across the U.S.
Nguyen said he and Trinh are still holding their breath but for now they’re open and will continue to serve classic Vietnamese dishes and Bradley still has his local Vietnamese eatery.
We asked Denverites to celebrate businesses they cherish that made it through the mandatory closures and other challenges of the pandemic. Bradley immediately answered the call and nominated Anise.
“There were some pretty decent restaurants in my neighborhood that unfortunately didn’t make it and [Anise] did and I’m glad,” Bradley said. “It’s a small business. It’s a minority-owned business, which this neighborhood doesn’t have a lot of. I appreciate their business and I like them in the neighborhood.”
Nguyen said he and Trinh picked that location on a whim. Opening the restaurant was also on whim, though the idea had been brewing in Trinh’s mind since she came to the United States in 2011.
Nguyen arrived in America about 40 years ago, first settling in New Jersey before coming to Denver 20 years ago. They’ve owned businesses before but Trinh’s dream has always been to cook and share authentic Vietnamese cuisine with Americans and give Denverites more than the average bowl of pho.
“Vietnamese food is Quyen’s passion,” Nguyen said. “When she first came here, we had young children, so she took care of the kids but when they were old enough, she enrolled in culinary school to formalize her style and love for food.”
Trinh added, “I cook the way I would for my friends and family. I cook from my heart. I wanted to bring Vietnamese food to American people.”
Trinh worked at a few places after graduating from Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, including the Cherry Creek Country Club and ChoLon, but the idea of owning a Vietnamese restaurant was still pertinent.
Nguyen said they shopped around a little bit but nothing came to fruition until they randomly saw a “for rent” sign at a storefront on Lincoln. They spoke to the landlord who later showed them the corner store where Anise lives today and they moved forward with Trinh’s dream.
“We opened the first day and had no customers,” Nguyen said. “We built every customer from scratch and slowly and steadily they came and came back. We were just getting to the point where we thought we’d start making money but the pandemic hit. It was really scary.”
However, Nguyen said they were committed to the space and there was only one thing to do, push forward.
“We said we can survive,” Trinh said. “Everything you do from your heart pays off. So, we just tried the best we could. Now we look back at last year, we have loyal customers that come and support us. They stressed out for me. We talk with them and they say they love this place and we make them feel at home.”
Anise never closed, staying open for take-out and later outdoor seating.
Bradley said he remembers stopping by one day and only two tables were seated. He knew the pair weren’t operating at a profit and his loyalty kicked in.
“I wanted to keep them open as best as I could,” Bradley said. “I tried to give them a big tip on a small order but Long said, ‘You know we’re in this together. You may need the money.’ And sure enough I did get furloughed from my job but I collected my unemployment and still continued to go.”
Bradley’s back at work and goes to Anise every other Monday for lunch. About a week ago, he changed his pattern and stopped by on a Tuesday.
Nguyen and Trinh aren’t good with names. Trinh asked for Bradley’s name a few times. But she remembered Bradley’s earrings, a signature pair of avocado earrings.
When I asked Bradley what he typically orders, Trinh cut in, answering lemongrass noodles with shrimp, which was spot on.
Bradley sometimes gets pho but he said there’s so many other items on the menu. Nguyen laughed and said he wouldn’t call pho their best dish but Americans are really into it.
“Like pizza,” Nguyen chuckled.
Nguyen said he doesn’t know how they gained so much loyalty from their customers, considering his self-proclaimed bad memory, but it’s not really about people’s names. It’s about a feeling.
“If you come here tomorrow, I will not remember you,” Nguyen laughed. “So, I don’t know how we do it. I know we greet each customer. We care about how they eat our food. Everyday we have new people walking through. There’s a chance for them to become repeat customers. Like Quyen said, she cooks from her heart.”
We hear chefs say it all the time. Cooking with love. Or passion. Good food, especially from a specific culture, is supposed to invoke comfort. It’s like going to grandma’s house. Trinh’s mom does help out in the kitchen, so there is a grandma feel. And that’s what Trinh and Nguyen are aiming for, giving Denverites Vietnamese food as if they took a trip to Saigon.
“I don’t know anything personal about Long or Quyen,” Bradley said. “I couldn’t tell you where they’re from or how they vote or anything. But I know they own this restaurant that has great food. And the feeling is mutual between us. I want them to stay open and they want me to come back. That’s the thing that keeps a neighborhood together. It’s people who ‘know’ each other and want to support each other.”