Bun bo hue “The seeds,” says Phuong. “Very hot.”
6921 Linda Vista Road, San Diego
"Bus stop temporarily closed.”
Dang. Should I start walking? Or?
I’m at a bus stop outside Sieu Thi Thuan Phat, the Vietnamese supermarket, waiting on the 44.
And then, a sign. No, not just a sign, A Sign.
“I Eat Pho.”
It’s outside a place called Pho Hoa. Destiny!
Pho (usually pronounced “fuh”) has been exploding on the American scene over the past 20 years. There’s a chain (also called Pho Hoa) that has grown to, like, 77 outlets in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Pho is just a simple beef-noodle soup that came into existence when the French were still occupying Vietnam. Pho might be a way of saying pot au feu, meaning “beef stew” in French.
I head toward the sign. Inside it’s wood-colored Formica tables, wooden chairs, blue skirting, green curtains, a painting of Ha Long Bay with its sugarloaf domes thrusting out of the water, and the servers’ blue T-shirts that read “I eat pho” across the back. Man, they’re all on the run, carrying plates of bean sprouts and steaming bowls of soup or wheeling trolleys to pick up empty dishes. Their pace clashes with the slow Vietnamese love songs on the sound system.
“Please,” says this gal, Phuong. She leads me to a table. You can tell from her speech, she was born over there. “Saigon?” I ask. “Ho Chi Minh City,” she corrects, politely.
She leaves me a menu. I’m seeing 24 pho dishes, different combos of mainly beef. The differences can be subtle. Like, number 5 has “rare steak, well-done brisket, tendon, and tripe.” It’s $6.35, or $6.80 for a large bowl. Number 9 (same prices) has “rare steak, flank, and tripe.” Number 11 (same price) has “well-done and crunchy flank.” Number 19, on the other hand, is seafood soup with “crab, fish balls, mussels, scallops, shrimp, and squid.” Costs $7.30.
Then they have com tam, which are non-soup “broken rice” dishes. Pork chops or strips ($7.10), shredded pork skin, and steamed egg cake ($6.85), or a combo of the two ($7.30).
Then I spot a third alternative: Bun.
I’ve never figured out the difference between pho and bun.
Seems bun uses rice vermicelli, thin strands of it, compared with pho’s thicker noodles. And under bun, they have bun bo hue, spicy beef soup ($7.10).
Chili-peanut sauce and spring rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, mint, lettuce, and chives.
So, uh, bun (vermicelli), bo (beef), hue? Turns out to be a soup in the style of Hue (“whay”), the royal capital back in the day. Center for sophisticated cooking, and lots of spiciness. “Hue style, much more spicy,” says Phuong.
Okay. “Bun bo hue,” I say, “and a half order of spring rolls. And a pot of, uh, tra nong.”
Heh-heh. Tra nong I know. Almost sounds like the Thai cha ron, hot tea. Chai. A pot’s only 95 cents. The soup’s $7.10, and the rolls are $3.50.
One thing for sure: I’ll be getting my RDA of raw greens. “All vermicelli bowls served with cucumber, bean sprouts, mint, lettuce, sour carrots, and topped with peanuts,” says the menu. Plus, the shrimp and pork spring rolls are stuffed with bean sprouts, mint, lettuce, and chives.
The lunch crowd is hopping. Mostly Vietnamese families and businessmen. Phuong turns up with my stainless pot of tea and little china mug, and a plate loaded with bean sprouts, whole branches of mint, a half-lemon, and a big, green, evil-looking slice of a serrano chili pod.
“The seeds,” says Phuong. “Very hot.”
Next thing, the brown, steaming soup arrives, with all sorts of chunks bobbing on the surface. “Can you tell me what all those are?” I say.
She points around with her finger. “Beef,” she says, “pork, beef tendon, beef blood…”
Here, she’s looking at a solid chunk of reddy-brown stuff. (I’ve had chunks of blood before. No sweat.)
And then, all the veggies...
First, I put all the bean sprouts in the soup, and then the chili pepper. And then I break all the leaves off the mint and put them in — but not the stalks (Phuong advised me). I stir it all up and let it cook a little to let the flavors blend.
It’s a nice little ceremony, dunking in the crunchy sprouts, picking off the mint leaves, smelling their aroma, and raining them into the steaming pond.
Then I start eating. Wow. I squirt on some Sriracha hot sauce, plus some of that sweet dark hoisin sauce. Tuong den, the Vietnamese call it. Even so, the main whiffs you get from the soup are of lemongrass.
I take a chunk of meat, collect some noodles and bean sprouts, and shove them in my maw. Oh, lord. Fresh, but already hot, hot, hot.
At this moment the spring rolls arrive. They look like alien birth pods with the shrimp visible through the rice paper. I dip one of them into a rich chili-peanut sauce and bite a chunk off, just to cool things inside. Then a slurp of tea, and we’re back in business. Even if the back of my neck is all a-sweat.
The blood? Tastes like kidneys and cardboard, but adds to the flavor when you pair it with a slab of beef and combine it with several slurps of the ever-more flavorful soup.
When I think about it, I’ve just had a soup’n salad all in one.
Also, I’ve eaten too much.
But, no problem. I know I’m gonna be walking miles just to find a 44 bus stop that works.
Prices: Most pho $6.35, or $6.80 for large bowl (e.g., #5 steak, brisket, tendon, tripe; #9 steak, flank, tripe; #11, well-done and crunchy flank); #19, seafood soup, crab, fish balls, mussels, scallops, shrimp, squid, $7.30; com tam, “broken rice” dish with pork chops or strips, $7.10; with shredded pork skin, steamed eggcake, $6.85; bun bo hue, spicy beef soup, $7.10; shrimp and pork spring rolls, four for $6.50
Hours: 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily
Buses: 44, 120
Nearest bus stops: For 44, Linda Vista Road at Goshen Street (northbound); at South Brunner Street (southbound); for 120, Linda Vista Road at Comstock Street (northbound); at Morley Way (southbound)