We love little hole in the walls and small culinary treasures. Granted, we enjoy a fine elegant meal as anyone else would, but there's something homey and comforting about places that you know and trust and can always return to for great day to day food. One such place is Quan Bun Ban Mai in Westminster in the heart of Little Saigon.
This restaurant specializes in a delicious noodle soup called canh bun, a very binh dan, or common working folk dish. In fact, the owners are from a small farming town about 1 hr south of Hanoi called Nam Dinh, which is where my grandparents family were from and where my dad was born.
Canh bun is a little known noodle soup that originated in northern Vietnam and is very similar to one of our all time favorite Vietnamese noodle soup bun rieu (crab noodle soup). The broth of these soups are the same pork bone and minced crab meat, but what sets this dish apart from bun rieu is that the thick rice noodles (same as ones used in bun bo hue) are cooked for a period of time in the broth, rendering a silky soft texture. Also rau muong (ong choy/morning glory/water spinach) is also cooked in the broth infusing it with the flavors of this favorite vegetable. Common accompiments include fried tofu, tomatoes, huyet (blood cake), fish cakes, and shrimp paste. Quan bun's version also includes oc (periwinkle) meat used in bun oc.
A squeeze bottle of fermented shrimp paste (mam nem) sits at every table. This is not a place for the weak of heart or a place to bring a first date as this pungent smell can be overpowering to some...but we love it!
The dac biet (special) canh bun with all the fixings is about $6 for a small bowl-- fairly reasonable for Little Saigon. A plate of extra rau muong is $1. They have other good soups on the menu, including bun rieu and bun oc as well as other northern Vietnam regional dishes such as bun cha Hanoi, however the canh bun is the dish that has kept them in business for over 20 years.
Instead of the usual pho or bun bo hue, try this lesser known but fantastic noodle soup sometime when you're in Little Saigon. Atmosphere wise, there's nothing pretty at this restaurant but your stomach will leave happy. The restaurant is in a strip mall of numerous Vietnamese fruit shops and bakeries so stop by for some soup and fresh exotic fruits such as durian, jackfuit, or longan. If you're not from southern California, we understand...we'll post our canh bun recipe soon!
Photos after the jump