I hadn’t been to China Gate on South University since sometime last century. No matter. The decor hasn’t changed, but in fact I love this retro room: the dual rows of tiny lanterns, the comfortable booths, the Formica tables and vinyl chairs in a shade of green found nowhere in nature, the back wall plastered with fifty-some fading photos of their specialties.

The menu, though, has a new twist: a handful of Vietnamese dishes. I’m especially interested in the pho (pronounced “fuh”), which is advertised by a big banner in the window. I love pho, having mostly grown up around Washington, D.C., a center of Vietnamese immigrant culture. The best pho I ever had, though, was in Denver, home to my in-laws as well as a large community of Southeast Asian immigrants. At our favorite dive in west Denver, they bring you a deep bowl of chicken soup with rice noodles and a separate tray of condiments: bean sprouts, lime slices, chilies, piles of basil. On every table, of course, is sriracha, or “rooster sauce”–a hellfire ketchup. The Denver pho has a homemade quality that makes it universally familiar, but since I believe it helped cure me of the worst flu I’ve ever had, I am convinced it also possesses magical healing properties. It’s sort of like a foreign-born grandma you love and revere but don’t thoroughly understand.

Anticipating something along these lines, I ordered the seafood pho at China Gate. What I got was very good, although not quite up to Denver standards. The soup stock is excellent, clearly made in-house, rich but still delicate. Yet it lacks something, a sort of tang; maybe I’m used to a hint of fish sauce in the broth. Building from the bottom up, the bowl contained a slurpy tangle of rice noodles, bits of sliced pork, a big fried shrimp-stuffed wonton, a layer of bean sprouts, cilantro, and a top layer of shrimp, scallops, crab sticks, and squid. But the only condiments on the side were small amounts of hoisin and sriracha sauces. (For the uninitiated, you pick bits of meat out of the soup and swirl them in the sauces before popping them into your mouth.)

This still left me yearning for a total pho blowout. China Gate does only two pho versions, so a few days later I went back for the beef. This time I started with a couple of Vietnamese summer rolls: a bundle of vermicelli, shrimp, lettuce, and cilantro bound in a rice wrapper, with a soy-peanut sauce on the side. These rolls, served chilled, are deliciously light for hot weather. The soup took awhile–which I took as a good sign, since it suggested it was being made to order. And before the pho came a small plate of condiments. Seeing it, I felt like yelling “Score!” It was all there: bean sprouts, fresh basil leaves, a sliced jalapeno pepper, wedges of fresh lemon.

When the pho arrived I threw in a couple of the hot pepper slices, not to eat them, but to let their hot oils gently slip into the soup. The lemon slices give an acidic dimension to the broth, and I partitioned out the basil so I’d have a little bit in many bites. Submerged in the hot liquid at the table, bean sprouts cook ever so slightly but keep their crunch, to contrast with the soft slipperiness of the noodles. And there was plenty of meat to dip in the hoisin-siracha mix too.

A final visit to China Gate–at which I was served a cold egg roll and a blah bowl of Cantonese seafood noodles with gritty shrimp–reminded me of why the restaurant had been off my radar for a long time. I wouldn’t slog my way through the old menu, but those two new pho dishes could make it into my winter rotation.

China Gate

1201 South University


Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Vietnamese pho $8.95, Chinese entrees $5.95-$28.95, lunch specials

Entrance tight for wheelchairs, no accessible restroom