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“I just got into town.”
“Great, we’ll get together.”
“Time for an eating adventure.”
“What’s it gonna be?”
“I have excellent alternatives in mind; we merely have to make a choice.”
I’m discussing plans with my brother, Kurt. I drove into Denver a few minutes before I made the call. He is Code Blue, ready for action.
“What about tonight,” asks Kurt. “Want to go somewhere tonight? We can take Kathy and Kathy and Kelsey. What are you in the mood for?”
My mood is no guide; I am always in the mood … for just about anything.
“Indian, sushi, northern Italian?,” he asks.
“How about Thai?”
I love Indian and Pakistani food, so they are possibilities. Sushi is out, Kathy won’t agree to it. Northern Italian? Too heavy. Thai? Yep, Thai. That’s the ticket.
I make the call, Kurt names the place: a little joint in a shopette (what a surprise!) on Colorado Boulevard — twelve small tables, one waitress, one host, three cooks busting hump like tweakers in meth overdrive.
“Try the drunken noodles,” says Kurt. “Had ’em the other night. Fantastic.”
The menu says we can pick a heat level one to four. I like heat, so I ask Kurt if he has ordered level four. He smiles.
“There’s a lot more levels, Karl, a lot more. They aren’t on the menu. I usually opt for seven to ten.”
The waitress is listening.
“One time,” she interjects, “man come in, ask how high we go. I tell him, ‘infinity.’ He a real wise guy. He order 252.”
Kurt smiles, the smile of a man who has been there. “Did his head explode?”
“He hurt. He hurt bad. Never come back.”
My chicken drunken noodles, level 10, are excellent, and even better in the company of a couple cold Singhas.
We are satisfied, but the dinner is a mere rehearsal.
“Tomorrow,” says Kurt, “you and I go out, just the two of us. I have ideas.”
When Kurt’s idea factory opens, mighty fine products roll off the assembly line.
“First, we go to the spice store. There are some things I need to pick up there. Then, it’s a pile, bro. We are eating a pile.”
I have employed the term “pile” on numerous occasions, writing about food over the years. When used as a unit of measure in my recipes, it has usually meant “bigger than a lot, smaller than massive.”
“So, we’re going to overindulge, encounter serious volume?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s guaranteed. We are going to order a pile, literally, a pile. Then, we’re going to wrap up parts of the pile and eat them. We’ll do this quite a few times, depending on how big a pile is put on the table.”
“What kind of pile?”
“Vietnamese, with a special touch. No more questions; you’re going to like it.”
The next day, we motor to a spice shop located across the river from downtown Denver — a wonderful little establishment on the first floor of an old bottling plant building in which, many years ago, several friends maintained shabby, huge art studios. The times have changed: where once tattered and drug-fogged bohos exorcized demons on canvases, nattily-clad country club moms now scan shelves for coriander and teas. We wander the store. The smells are amazing — issuing from the spices and the moms. There are small shaker bottles from which we sprinkle samples on the backs of our hands in order to taste the wares. Though tempted, I do not try to taste a country club mom.
Kurt shifts into max-consumer mode and purchases a variety of items.
I opt for a bottle of hot, smoked Spanish paprika and a batch of zippy garam masala.
Then, we’re off to Pileville.
Kurt wheels into the parking lot in front of a southwest Denver shopette (what a surprise!). He has a look in his eye that reminds me of a predator on the hunt, a starving carnivore fast on the heels of a wounded bunny. We come to a halt in front of a Vietnamese restaurant, one that has occupied the space for years.
“New owners,” says Kurt as he leaps from the car. “New owners, new attitude, great food. The pile is the stuff of legend.” He’s amped up. I am fairly certain he is under the influence of an herb found somewhere other than the spice shop.
The menu features pages of items. Kurt turns to a page, points at No. 122.
“That’s it. It’s a medium pile here. Anywhere else, it would be a major pile.”
The waiter appears, Kurt orders and we add a couple beers to the ticket.
When the food arrives it is, indeed, a pile. The plate is oval, large and deep. The bed of the pile is a tangle of rice noodles that rises like an ancient king’s burial mound on a broad, flat plain.
On top of the noodles, a layer of skewers bearing strips of grilled, marinated meats — chicken, beef, pork, lamb. Grilled shrimps ring the fleshy array. At the peak of the pile rest six more skewers, of … what?
Another dish arrives, with a second pile, this time vegetable matter: julienned carrot and cucumber, lettuce leaves, tangles of fresh mint and cilantro.
A large bowl of extremely hot water is put at the end of the table and next to it, a plate with a stack of brittle rice paper wrappers.
Here’s the drill: Take a rice paper wrapper, dip it in the hot water and it becomes a relatively soft, tortilla-like round. Don’t soak too long or disaster is certain.
Put the soft wrapper on a plate, shovel on some noodles, empty a skewer or two of meat on the noodles, scatter some veggies and herbs on top of that, spritz on a healthy dose of sriracha, wrap the thing like a burrito, dip it in one or both of the sauces — a satay-like peanut sauce and a fish sauce-based concoction — and chow down. Follow bite with swallow of cold beer. Repeat as many times as possible.
Kurt is hard at work, head down, his focus intense. He gets so worked up he shoots a stream of sriracha across the table onto the front of my shirt. My white shirt.
“Save the skewers on top for a special treat,” he says as he wolfs down his first bite of the pile.
What is the special treat, you ask, the mystery substance on the six skewers at the peak of pile mountain?
Grilled shrimp and pork paste.
Kurt explains. “Shrimp gets pulverized, spiced, mixed with pork fat, some binders and flavor-enhancers, is shaped on a skewer and grilled. You wrap it in a lettuce leaf, hit it with sriracha, dip it in the sauce. You’re gonna love it.”
Kurt and I make it three-quarters of the way through the pile. We demolish the proteins but can’t quite do the same with the noodles and vegetables.
“If we wait a half-hour or so, I believe we can finish it,” says my brother, his hands palms down on the sauce-splashed table. He looks like an interrogated prisoner who has, after a noble battle, surrendered to his tormentors. He is finished. As am I. Bravado is pointless.
We waddle from the restaurant, sated, me trying to wipe the deep red stain from my white shirt with a wet paper napkin.
As I fight to stay awake on the drive back to Kurt’s house, I promise myself I will whip up a version of shrimp and pork paste. It won’t match the restaurant product, but I will make sure it is tasty. I might even invite several people to dinner to try my version of the pile.
Shrimp and pork. How can I go wrong?
Shrimps: A pound, fresh, deveined, chopped into hunks.
The pork fat: a quarter pound of hunks of pig flab simmered for a while in lightly salted water, then chopped into smaller hunks.
A mess of garlic — five or six cloves, chopped and smushed.
As many shallots, same treatment.
One egg, beaten.
A couple ounces raw cane sugar or brown sugar.
A tablespoon or a bit more of cornstarch.
Four or five teaspoons of high-quality fish sauce. The better the sauce, the funkier the smell (unlike a county club mom).
A tablespoon of ground, roasted peanuts.
Salt and pepper.
Mix it all together, put it in a processor and pulse until I have a sticky paste.
Ideally, the mix is formed around homemade sugar cane skewers. I am sure the market here in Siberia With a View stocks sugar cane stalks, but I haven’t found them yet. The stockers probably mistakenly placed them in the kosher section. As a result, regular wooden skewers, soaked for a couple hours in water, or a set of metal skewers, will do.
Oil the hands, divide the paste into eight equal parts, shape each wad of paste around a skewer, slightly flattening it. Grill for a few minutes on one side, flip and grill a few minutes more. At the same time, grill skewered strips of chicken and skirt steak, and a bunch of deveined shrimps — all marinated in a oily, garlicky, oniony, gingery, limey, fish-saucy bath for several hours. Go easy on the citrus — don’t “cook” the meat or fish prior to grilling them.
When the grilling is finished, pop the skewers on top of a mound of cooked rice vermicelli.
Everything else should be ready ahead of time. I’ll make a simple peanut sauce, cooking creamy peanut butter with hoisin sauce, a bit of finely minced white onion, mushed garlic, a bit of dark soy and some fish sauce, and I’ll prepare a version of a standard dipper made with fish sauce, garlic, chiles, lime juice, sugar and a teensy bit of water. I will taste these babies as they are born and adjust the ingredients in each as I go.
The julienned veggies, the herbs and the large bowl of very hot water will be brought to the table and the race to the bottom of the pile will begin.
Be careful with that bottle of sriracha.
The stains don’t come out.