Loving noodle soups and looking for something different than pho, I recently learned about bun bo hue, a spicy Vietnamese noodle soup characteristic of the city of Hue, by reading mmm-yoso ( http://mmm-yoso.typepad.com ), San Diego’s best Asian, Hawaiian, and Mexican foodblog. Traditionally, the soup contains noodles shaped like spaghetti, slices of beef, pig’s foot, and pork blood and is accompanied by a plate of garnish. Having grown up eating blood sausage, I guess I feel like I have reached my pork blood quota already, so I usually say “no blood, please.”
I went into Convoy Noodle House a few months ago and ordered this dish. I like this medium sized noodle restaurant because of its bright and clean feeling ambiance and the quick and professional service. Usually whatever I order is in front of me in 5 minutes. I loved the bun bo hue there. It was spiced properly for my mouth, fiery but not uncomfortable. The dish came with lemon wedges, sliced jalapenos, sprigs of mint, and bean sprouts. A tiny bowl held some brown funky fermented shrimp paste and chili oil. Since the soup did not come with instructions, I used this as an occasional dipping sauce, occasionally touching a bit of noodle or meat into it. The beef was fairly tender and instead of pig’s foot, there was a slice of gelatinous, tendontious pork. The noodles were plentiful, the broth nicely balanced, and the whole dish a success. I left smiling about everything except the little drops of chili broth on my shirt, caused by slurping too many tasty noodles.
Then Kirk (of mmm-yoso) told me about Pho Ca Dao, out on El Cajon Boulevard. The ambiance here is a little less bright and shiny, but the waiters are efficient and quick. Although the bun bo hue is also filled with ample round noodles, the soup is very different from Convoy Noodle House. The beef was a bit tougher and fattier, the pig’s foot was just bone and skin, and along with the mint, jalapenos, and bean sprouts, a pile of red cabbage adorned the garnish platter. But the biggest difference was the broth, in which the fermented shrimp paste is added by the kitchen and provides a main flavor component. This was a very savory and robustly flavored soup with all kinds of umami. I can’t say that I loved the red cabbage – it mostly seemed to be there as a contrastive texture – but on both of my visits, I left Pho Cao Da happily smiling except for, of course, the dots of chili stain.
Then on my last visit to SD, I stopped in at Thien Thanh also on El Cajon Blvd. The first thing a new visitor to this place notices is that this is not an industrial style operation; instead it is family-run with exceptionally friendly people working there. When I entered, I really was thinking about a different noodle soup but when I asked the waitperson if the bun rieu was spicy, she said, “No, you want this one.” She was pointing at bun bo hue, so I figured that hers was the fickle finger of fate, and I followed her suggestion. I’m glad I did. Soon a savory bowl of spicy noodle soup was sitting in front of me steaming. It was packed full of stuff so that noodles and things were sticking out of the broth, and at the same time, the whole surface was covered with some chopped green herb that I didn’t recognize. Next I noticed the garnish platter. In addition to the usual bean sprouts, lime wedge, and jalapenos, a ton of mint and something like reddish-purple shiso leaves – an herb with a very distinctive taste – covered the plate. Hiding under everything were some slivered stems of something (?) as well as thin, finely sliced strips of some brown, onion-looking something that added a spicy note to the soup. When I asked the gentleman at the cash register about it, he called it something like balanga (maybe galangal, but it didn’t look like the woody discs that I associate with that term.) The garnishes were so extensive and the soup so overloaded with stuff, that I kept adding ingredients for the first 10 or 15 minutes I was eating. This range of different herbs etc also meant that each bite of the soup tasted slightly different from each of the others. The broth was light, but light in a good way, subtle with flavors, spice, and balance, a perfect compliment to the variety of tastes overall. Unlike the focused power of the version at Pho Ca Dao, this bowl emphasized variety and complexity. While the beef was chewy and nothing special, there were three pieces of pig’s foot, each with a bit of meat, as well as a couple of slices of pork loaf. Even better, the filling bowl with all the wonderful goodies came to $6 total, including tax. I left smiling from ear to ear, not even minding the reddish polka-dots on my shirt.
I have had this dish at a total of 3 different restaurants, so I am no expert. But I liked each version, and each version was unique. I wonder how many different species of this critter live in the various Vietnamese establishments of San Diego.