After rolling into SD in the early afternoon on Friday, I went to El Cajon Blvd looking for this small restaurant. Kirk (of mmm-yoso blog fame) had heard that it had good bun bo hue, but the first time I tried to locate it, I pulled into the wrong stripmall and ended up eating somewhere else.
From the outside, Hoai Hue Deli looks pretty sleazy. It occupies a tiny place in the back of a very small stripmall with almost no parking. It shares the mall with a Vietnamese tattoo parlor, an AA office, and the exceedingly seedy Café Viet, which has the choice location by the sidewalk. The front glass of the restaurant is covered with steel bars and its rusty sign hasn’t been painted in years. I felt right at home.
As soon as I entered, I was shocked. It was 1:15 and six of the seven small tables were full of people. When I said that I was interested in lunch I was directed to stand in line at the cash register to which was affixed the only menu in the place. By the time I got to the register, the last open table was taken. When I mentioned to grandma at the cash register that I wanted bun bo hue (no blood) but added that there was no place to sit, the owner/manager/grandpa said “no problem” and spoke to a gentleman sitting by himself at a small table. The nice guy moved over, and I had a chair to sit in. Friendly place.
The bun bo hue ($5) was quite good. The sliced beef was as tender and flavorful as any I ever remember having in bbh. The 1” slice of meaty pork hock replaced the usual meatless pig foot. Instead of slices of tendon, the soup had two huge knots of chewy tendon that I liked a lot. The spicy broth had bits of red chili floating in it and presented a nice balance between chili heat, meaty flavors, citrus tang, and fermented shrimp paste funk. When I thought that Kirk would probably like it more funky, I looked over at the condiment tray and spied a whole small tub of fermented shrimp paste. While not packed with noodles, the amount was certainly adequate for a $5 lunch.
The garnishes, on the other hand, were skimpy. There were the usual bean sprouts, lime chunk, and two nice sized sprigs of mint. Two small green whole Thai chilies instead of the usual jalapeno slices. That was all.
I did miss having a menu to look at, so I have no idea of what is available, but this is not Phuong Trang; I think the menu had only 18 items listed. Most of the other diners were eating bowls of soup – but I noticed one young man unwrapping what seemed to be banana leaves wrapped around what kindof looked like mini Viet tamales. A couple other odd looking appetizers were being enjoyed at other tables.
I hate writing about a spot when I have only eaten at it one time, but this tiny restaurant charmed me. It is certainly popular in the area; in addition to being full, I saw at least two people come in for take-out, one guy leaving with several cartons of food. The older couple, whose restaurant this seemed to be, were friendly, smiling, and gracious. I hate to recommend the place too highly as they don’t seem to have enough space for the amount of business they currently have. But if you are like me and enjoy looking for culinary holy grails in little holes in the wall, this spot is worth a visit.