Until I moved to Colorado, I didn’t know what “pho” (pronounced “f-ooo” or “ph-uh”) was. The closest thing I’d ever had was ramen noodles out of a bag with that obviously fake chicken flavor but deliciously salty spice packet.
Well, pho is definitely not just ramen noodles. It is so much more. Typically a rich, flavorful broth made by simmering all manners of vegetables and meats for hours, filled with noodles, veggies, and paper-thin slices of beef. Then topped with crunchy sprouts, Thai basil, and jalapeno slices. Pho is a whole taste experience.
You can of course have non-soup dishes as well, including rice bowls and noodle bowls. Depends on the place you go, but you should definitely try authentic pho soup at least once. Be sure to ask to see the size of the bowl before you order for the first time. Even a “small” can be a staggeringly huge amount of food.
By far my favorite find for pho in the Denver area has been Pho Lee. A small, unassuming store in a tucked-away plaza off of Arapahoe Road just off I-25, you wouldn’t know it to look at it but this cozy diner is ragingly popular with the locals. And for good reason.
I’ve had both a noodle bowl and the pho soup, and both have been crazy tasty. For a very affordable price ($8-$12) you can have a gigantic bowl of top-notch Asian cuisine, likely with enough left over for dinner or to store in the work fridge until tomorrow. If it even lasts that long.
I went with several people from work, and we waited about 5 minutes for a table. Be sure to get there well before the noon rush crowd, or you will definitely be there longer than an hour. Like I said, this place is popular.
My co-worker got a rice bowl with sweet and sour shrimp, and said it was delightful. The sauce was flavorful and tasty, not too thick and not too watery. The veggies were steamed to perfection.
I chose the brisket noodle bowl, and boy am I glad I did! This monster of a meal had heaps of fresh hot meat, sliced more thinly than my pinky nail and covered in a slightly sweet almost BBQ like marinade. The hot rice noodles went perfectly with the brown sauce, and the cold diced cucumber and shaved carrots were a great combination and contrast. Topped with scallions and crushed peanuts, and with a cup of kimchi poured on top, it was absolute bliss.
I had more than enough to satiate me, and more than half I took home in a box for dinner. Not bad for $9. I went back a few weeks later with another work friend, and had the pho soup bowl. This time we had a 10 minute wait for a table, and ended up sharing a 4-top with one stranger. But at Pho Lee, everyone is family.
The bowl was bigger than my head and filled to the top with hot, complex, spicy broth, heaps of ribbons of meat, fresh vegetables, and rice noodles. The plate they bring as toppings was piled with handfuls of fresh Thai basil, other greens, jalapenos, and bean sprouts. Several types of hot sauces and spices are also provided, so you can customize your heat content to taste.
Overall, Pho Lee provides some amazing food for a very affordable price, especially in the I-25/Arapahoe area. The service was great too, the owner himself came to give us a quick apology for the delay in getting a table, and to thank us for being willing to share a table when they are clearly busy. Everyone was pleasant, and seemed very happy to be working there. I would highly recommend this place, for lunch or dinner, any time.
As this is a food blog, I’ve decided to expand it to include reviews of notable food locations. Preference will be given to unique, local, family-owned establishments. Food locations will be evaluated based on:
Taste: 1 (wet toast) – 10 (your taste buds have died and gone to heaven)
For the very first food review article, you lucky readers get a two-part special of notable food experiences in Austin Texas! From taco trucks to ice cream to upscale waterfront dining, Austin offers an array of options to satisfy any foodie’s curiosity and taste buds. Having never been to Texas before, my hosts were set on showing me as much of the town as I could handle in 3 ½ days. And they did exactly that.
We flew in late at night on a Wednesday, and headed straight to bed. We were greeted the next morning with fresh, homemade blueberry pancakes. I’m never upset about pancakes.
That morning was filled with outdoor adventures in a nearby park, exploring a natural spring, and kayaking along a beautiful downtown view.
After our picturesque exercise, we wanted some fuel. But we had big plans that night, so it had to be something quick and small. Trailer Park & Eatery was just down the road, so we headed over to the corner of S. 1st St. & Elizabeth St. West. The parking lot fits the food trucks and a picnic seating area only, so we parked across the street. At just past noon, there wasn’t much of a crowd yet. There was however a van and filming crew. That’s right, The Cooking Channel’s “Food Truck Face-Off” was filming right then and there!
Two new food trucks would later be vying for top truck to win. But at the moment, all we were concerned about was the one truck we came here for: Torchy’s Tacos.
For those of you who don’t know, Torchy’s is kind of a big deal. People know about it.
Former executive chef Michael Rypka left the fine food world to pursue his dream of creating and serving Damn Good tacos. As their own website says: “Mike realized he had bet his life savings on green chili pork and fajitas mixed with his own desire for some great street food. With no customers in sight, Mike hopped on his scooter and handed out free chips and his award-winning salsa to personally invite everyone to stop by the trailer for some tacos. It worked.”
From a humble beginning with one food truck, Torchy’s Tacos now operates several stores as well as the trailer park. They regularly have long lines and happy customers. After one bite of my own, I saw why.
I ordered two tacos, “The Independent” and a “Beef Fajita”. The Independent is a vegetarian dream that even a meat-lover would love. With thick, marinated, hand-battered and fried portobello mushroom strips, smooth refried black beans, crispy chunks of falafel, charred roasted corn, crunchy escabeche carrots, queso fresco, fresh cilantro and avocado, all drizzled with an ancho aioli heaped high onto a flour tortilla, the Independent was filling in every way.
The flavors and textures contrasted and complimented to create a perfect bite every time. The ancho aioli had a bit of a kick to it, but was controlled by the creamy avocado and salty cheese. I loved everything about this taco, I wouldn’t have even known it was vegetarian.
Meanwhile, I had to give equal attention to my Beef Fajita. Simpler in a way, yet more complex in others, the beef fajita consisted of marinated and grilled skirt steak, smothered in sweet grilled onions and peppers, and topped off with coarsely shredded cheese & pico de gallo. I got mine in a flour tortilla with green tomatillo sauce. The flavors and spices of the marinade and rub made a steak so tender and flavorful I could eat it alone all day long. The grilled onions and pepper completed the flavor profile as only they can.
The ingredient list for this taco was short, but it packs a powerful punch of flavor. The beef was tender and cooked perfectly, and no one flavor overpowered the mix. Two tacos was a perfect light lunch, filling without being heavy. One of the many beautiful things about Torchy’s is that you can pick and choose and order as many of each taco as you like to try all the tastes that catch your eye.
Diners can enjoy their tortilla-ed treats at an outdoor picnic bench area shaded by large trees wrapped in lights. No doubt nighttime here is beautiful. There is also an indoor garage area with two televisions and a large community bulletin board advertising local dance classes and such. An indoor option is critical for when weather threatens, and the outdoor seating is chill and relaxing. The loud traffic from the road right behind you can be a bit obnoxious though.
While we were blissfully enjoying our tacos, a representative of the The Cooking Channel came over to ask if we minded being filmed. Why of course not! We signed our wavers, and got our nom on. Who knows, maybe in a few months I’ll have my first 15 seconds of on-screen fame!
Stuffed from our “snack”, we piled back in the car to head home for some games and a nap. We needed to be refreshed and hungry again in a few hours.
Overall, I’d give Torchy’s Tacos:
10 for taste
6 for atmosphere
8 for value
En route to dinner, the secret was finally let out: our destination was the famous “Oasis on Lake Travis”, the sunset capital of Texas. Located at 6550 Comanche Trail, The Oasis does live up to its reputation, a towering stone building four decks high sits alone atop a cliff overlooking the (unfortunately low) Lake Travis. The entrance-way is a collage of greenery, flowers, and a hodge-podge of statues. A woman with an umbrella and a child watch from a balcony while a gymnast is forever frozen mid-flip and a cowboy rides a bucking bronco under a majestic soaring eagle. All the bronze work at The Oasis is for sale, if you’d like a heavy and expensive memento of this unique dining experience.
We arrived early, around 6 pm, and already the bottom three decks were packed with people. On the uppermost deck, the live band was setting up for the night. We snagged a front-row lakeside table on the second-highest deck and ordered a round of chips & salsa, and a “Famous Margarita” which was served salt-rimmed and frosty in a heavy glass embossed with the Oasis symbol and name.
The salsa was a little too watery for my taste, I would like more of the chunks of fresh tomato. But the overall flavor was great, with bits of onion and cilantro, and a slight heat from jalapenos. The margarita earns it’s fame, with a smooth, refreshing taste with no bite at all from the tequila. These are dangerous as they are easy sipping and go down fast.
The plastic cups in which the water was served are included as a souvenir for each diner.
After a leisurely hour of chatting and taking advantage of the many photo-op locations, we ordered our meal. I chose the fish tacos, because the lime margarita compliments fish, and the night was balmy and perfect for such things. The tilapia was perfectly seasoned and grilled, served in small corn tortillas and topped with generous amounts of purple cabbage slaw, pico de gallo, guacamole, and spicy ranch sauce.
The two mini corn tacos were the perfect size to get all the big flavors without feeling too stuffed. The rice on the side was a bit lack-luster in flavor, but the taco toppings (pico de gallo, tomatillo sauce, salsa) could be mixed in and kick it up a notch.
Around the table we had the loaded nacho platter to share, as well as the “Spicy Beef” enchiladas which have no spice. (The menu puts a pepper symbol next to “spicy” dishes. The Spicy Beef mysteriously had no spice). The loaded nachos came smothered in cheese, salsa, pico de gallo, jalapenos, and sour cream, with the option of refried or black beans or meat if you so chose. The drinks were great, the food was good, but what you really go to the Oasis for is the experience.
Then the magic moment arrived. The little kids in the establishment were all herded towards an old-looking bronze bell with a thick rope attached. The sun was kissing the horizon, turning the ambient light deep amber and scarlet. The excitement was palpable.
Sunset at the Oasis is quite the event. Everyone holds their breath as the ruby blaze of sun sinks lower and lower, until finally the light extinguishes and the children throw their weight against the rope, ringing the bell loudly across the water and the entire place erupts in cheers and applause.
Overall, I’d give The Oasis:
6 for taste
10 for atmosphere
6 for value
After the applause died down and a few more photos to commemorate the moment, we headed back to end the night quietly at home. Or so I thought. Turns out, a local friend had other plans for us.
We were picked up in a lovely silver sporty car and whisked downtown. Pulling into the parking lot of our final destination, I looked up to see a glowing doughtnut-man sign declaring we had arrived at “Gourdough’s”.
Opened in a vintage trailer in 2011, Gourdough’s has exploded in popularity and press. Everything on their extensive and imaginative menu is served either on or with a donut. And these aren’t the sticky-sweet donuts you’re used to, they are giant savory chunks of deep-fried delicious that go perfectly with chicken fingers, honey butter, and honey mustard dipping sauce (The Mother Clucker) or fried crispy-caramelized bananas with cream cheese frosting and brown sugar (The Funky Monkey), both of which we tried.
The inside area is a typical bar, mostly wooden with tables and booths. We weren’t interested in drinking for now, so we headed out into the gorgeous night to the outdoor seating area, a rock-carpeted fenced-in yard with multiple picnic tables, several giant televisions, and the classic vintage trailer on display. The area was nice enough, but they were playing some very strange and occasionally disturbing show on the TVs. Perhaps blame it on the late hour and the assumption that most customers by now would be drunk.
Mine was the Funky Monkey, and it positively oozed deliciousness. I love fried bananas, and this thing was loaded with ’em! The donut was indeed thick and savory, and smothered in sweet cream cheese frosting with brown sugar sprinkled all about. It was a bit overwhelming though, I couldn’t finish the whole thing. Of course, I also had to try a bite of the other three around the table, which likely contributed to my over-full tummy…
Each donut on the menu sounds as amazing as the next, with burgers using donuts as the bun, savory “Drunken Hunk” bacon-wrapped meatloaf, and sweet-tooth satisfying sugar-coma inducing confections. Even the salads come with a donut on the side. If you’re on a diet, steer clear of this place. But if you want a unique taste experience, pull on in and grab a picnic bench!
Overall, I’d give Gourdough’s:
9 for taste
5 for atmosphere
8 for value
It was getting late, and the bar was near closing time, so we finally called it a night and headed home. After a good long rest, the next morning was fend-for-yourself as we all prepared for a big graduation ceremony. Life accomplishments are always exciting! I’m sure the graduate had such nerves they wouldn’t have been able to hold down a big meal anyhow. With the help of some cereal and a big Starbucks frappuccino, I held out until brunch. Boy was I glad I did!
We pull up into a tree-shaded parking lot next to a fenced-in reservoir. People are jogging and walking their dogs, or paddle-boarding and kayaking in the sun. We head towards a large, pale brick building with a huge “RF” branded on the side. This is the famous Roaring Fork. Founders Guy and Larry own and operate a string of upscale dining establishments in the west and southwest, as well as some more wacky concepts like the Salty Sow.
Guests are greeted by an open, curved kitchen space with marble countertops, stainless steel and glass, and a giant open fire pit with roaring flames. The spacious interior has soaring ceilings and windows the width of the walls, giving the whole space an airy feel. We are seated out on the glassed-in wooden deck overlooking the small reservoir that was once a rock quarry.
As a soft breeze whispers through the trees, the waiter comes over to explain to us the specials which are not on the enormous, heavy, leather bound menus. There is fresh-caught fish and chef’s choice of beef, at market price of course. The waiter understood we were there for brunch, and shared the special with us, a choose-two menu called the “Texas Two-Step”. Nearly the whole dining party went that way, since it’s always better to try multiple dishes.
Their chicken is apparently famous by word of mouth, as is their pork shoulder and green chili. They also have the amusingly named “big ass burger” and “half ass burger”. However, when I saw wood-grilled salmon, I had to have that. And when I read mixed green salad with candied walnuts, feta, & a cranberry vinaigrette dressing, the deal was sealed. I’m a sucker for salads that include feta and anything sweet.
Now, once the orders were placed and drinks were brought, some restaurants bring a basket of bread or other such appetite-whetting things. Not classy enough for the Roaring Fork. They bring out two heaping baskets of steaming fresh-from-the-oven muffin bites. They smelled divine, and when asked about them, the waiter informed us that they are corn muffins with shredded cheese, jalapenos, and black currants. It sounds like a strange combination, but one bite and we were all hooked. We joked with each other as one after another kept saying “no, really, this is the last one”.
When the meals came, luckily I was sitting next to someone kind enough to offer a bite of the chicken, and it was indeed delicious and fall-off-the-bone tender. My salmon was sweet and smoky, perfectly flaky, and served on a bed of wilted spinach with garlic and onion, alongside creamy mashed potatoes with just the right consistency.
With a lovely bar area we didn’t have a chance to enjoy and multiple patios, the Roaring Fork has a great, classy atmosphere to relax in and enjoy being pampered.
Overall, I’d give Roaring Fork:
9 for taste
9 for atmosphere
6 for value
Hope you learned a little and drooled a lot! Thus ends the first part of my Tastes of Austin restaurants review. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we indoor skydive, the Statue of Liberty rides a motorcycle, and brisket gets involved.
The fusion of food, fun, frugality, and curiosity.