7530 Mesa College Drive, Suite A, Clairemont
4660 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite 102, Talmadge
Nothing gets my Vietnamese friends’ blood boiling more than when some foodie calls bun bo hue “spicy pho.” They tell me, “Bun bo is about as close to pho as chicken noodle soup is to ramen.” Different noodles, broth, cuts of meat — heck, even most of the vegetables and herbs that accompany a good bowl of bun bo differ from what you’d end up having alongside your usual bowl of pho.
But a part of me understands the misconception. If you’ve ever tried a bowl of bun bo hue, it’s likely you had it a pho shop; that’s where I had my first bowl. The odds are also high that it was just like most bowls of bun bo I’ve had in those establishments: a base of pho broth, basic pho cuts of meat, chili paste (or sometimes sate paste), and mam tom (fermented shrimp sauce), for that mysteriously savory flavor. Well, at least they use the correct noodles — the spaghetti-like rice vermicelli noodles called bun.
It wasn’t until I set foot in the little casita off Mesa College Drive called Mien Trung that I got it. The backbone of a decent bun bo hue broth isn’t just the spiciness; it’s the pungent lemongrass that gives it a citrus-floral burst, and the sheen of oil colored red by annatto floating on the surface. Yes, there’s that bit of funkiness from the shrimp sauce, but it doesn’t overpower the broth. There’s usually a handy-dandy jar of the stuff on the table, should you want more.
The broth is a made from a combination of pork and beef bones. I’ve been told that traditional broth is strictly beef. However, while visiting Vietnam, I read an issue of Vietnam Cultural Window, which mentioned that bun bo is made nowadays with the pork-beef combination. This makes for an intoxicating aroma as the steaming bowl hits the table. And I do mean steaming. That’s important, because bean sprouts, along with a pile of shredded lettuce and cabbage, mint, and basil are provided; if the broth were a tad too cool, you’d have lukewarm soup on your hands, and not good eats. I do wish that shredded banana blossom was included in the mix.
The slippery rice vermicelli has been spot-on over my many visits, never too soft, and great for slurping. The meat is the traditional beef shank and pork hock, the hock another item that confuses those in the “it’s just spicy pho” category. The soup is rustic and hearty, as are the rough cuts of beef, beef tendon, and a cross-cut pork leg with skin wrapped around a nugget or two of meat. The one item I don’t care for is the jellied blood; I’ve never developed a taste for it.
A regular bowl will cost you $6. The large bowl, which also has cha lua, a defatted pork sausage steamed in banana leaves, tops off at $6.50. The restaurant is tiny. Parking can be found in the lot directly to the west. They accept only cash.
If it weren’t for Mien Trung, Hoai Hue Restaurant would be my favorite. In fact, the beef shank is cut thinner, and the pork hock is more meaty and tender at Hoai Hue. The garnishes used to be superior to Mien Trung, too, featuring more mint and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander: Persicaria odorata ). But on recent visits, it seems to be mostly chunks of lettuce, sometimes lettuce approaching its due date. The broth is less fragrant, and though it holds its own in the chili department, it seems less complex, the heat superficial. I do think there’s a bit less MSG used here.
On some visits, the broth hasn’t been up to the task in terms of temperature, but recently, something nice occurred. I was staring at my woefully inadequate bowl of broth when an older gentleman who works at Hoai Hue walked by and said, “I’ll get you more broth.” He went to the kitchen, returning with a bowl of steaming, almost-boiling broth and filled my bowl up with the hot stuff.
I’ve noticed menu revisions over the last few visits. The bun bo can now be had a bunch of different ways, with different meats, without cilantro or onions, even non-spicy. Which leads to a question: Is it still bun bo hue?
A regular bowl runs $6.50, though I’d spend that extra dollar and go with the dac biet (on special for $7.50), which features good pork meatballs. They don’t have that solid, hard, “squeak” to them, as many versions do. This new location is an improvement over the former, which was in a small, seedy strip mall with eight tiny parking spaces.
There is, of course, more to the cuisine of Central Vietnam and hue than soup. But that’s a topic for a later column. Right now, as the weather turns cool, I’m more than happy with a bowl of rustic and fragrant bun bo hue. ■
- Mien Trung Restaurant
- 7530 Mesa College Drive, Clairemont, 858-576-0962
- Hours: 9:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday; 9:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Mondays
- Hoai Hue Restaurant
- 4660 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego, 619-563-5358; hoaihue.com
- Hours: 8:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday (according to signage); 8:00 a.m.–7:30 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday (according to website); closed Mondays