Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bún bò Huế at Pho Danh

I called one of my best friends to ask his Vietnamese fiancee what is her favorite Vietnamese noodle soup in Houston.

There was a pause. She isn't into superlatives.

"It is hard to find better than the Bún bò Huế at Pho Danh in Hong Kong Mall."

Bún bò Huế isn't Pho

Bún bò Huế is pronounced something like "boon-boh-hway." Say it rapidly without emphasizing any syllable. It is so fun to say that it's addictive.

Bún bò Huế is a Vietnamese noodle soup. To a Westerner, it is a lot like pho. But it isn't pho.

Pho is from Northern Vietnam. Bún bò Huế comes from Hue in Central Vietnam.

Pho's broth is flavored by star anise, cinamon, cloves. Bún bò Huế's broth typically has lemongrass and shrimp paste.

But the biggest difference is this. Pho uses only one meat -- beef. Real Bún bò Huế uses beef flank, but it also uses pigs feet, and cubed blood clots.

Still hungry?

Bún bò Huế and Pho are two of world's most complex, and best-tasting soups. And if I had to chose, I would have to pick Bún bò Huế.

The ever-changing soup of great complexity


These are two photos of the same bowl of soup. Bún bò Huế has a way of changing as you eat it.

The soup arrives with noodles, broth, and meat. But Pho Danh also gives you a giant mound of fresh ingredients to add:

bean sprouts
cabbage
raw jalapenos
lime
basil
and a secret sauce that is so foul and stinky that it must be kept in a sealed container:
When I first opened the container to smell it, I refused to put it in my soup. Fortunately, I reconsidered. The foul paste added a complexity and depth to the soup that improved the flavor.

The tables at Pho Danh have other ingredients you can add -- soy, hoisin, sriracha, fish sauce. But I didn't want to tamper with this already complex dish.

As I worked through the bowl, I encountered the ingredient my friend warned me about -- the blood clots. They had the texture of tofu with a mildly meaty flavor. It is more edible than it sounds, or looks:

Ultimately, the real beauty of Bún bò Huế is not the spaghetti-like noodles, the strange meats, or the dozens of ingredients -- it's the broth.

The broth borrows flavors from everything that has been put in the soup. It becomes a mysterious mix of the garden, the sea, meaty flavors, the vegetal heat of jalapenos, the tanginess of lime, the aromatics of basil, and the funkiness of shrimp paste. The broth changes with every bite, drawing you further into its complexity.

For me, no broth in Western cooking can compare to this.

9 comments:

HoustonWok said...

Oh wow,
Suprisingly, I have never tried Bun Bo Hue here at Pho Danh. Pho Danh is my all time favorite Pho restaurant however. Have you tried the Pho here?

anonymouseater said...

I haven't tried pho there yet. I have only been once.

But I have heard good things from various blogs, including yours.

Justin said...

Pho Danh's my favorite pho restaurant as well (even wrote an fc review on it) and up until yesterday about eight hours before I read this, I thought Pho Danh's bun bo hue was pretty much unmatched.

Then I went to Thien An and tried it out. Oh man, does Pho Danh have competition.

You should do a vis-a-vis post.

anonymouseater said...

Thanks Justin. I will try it at Thien An soon.

Did you go to the Midtown location?

Rubiao said...

I know this is kind of off topic, but I was waiting for a way to post this for a while, as I'm not exactly sure how to e-mail you. My brother just moved to Beijing, and I told him I would explore Chinese restaurants in Houston to find him good places to eat upon his return. I eat Thai and Vietnamese all the time, but have never really loved Chinese food. A few weeks ago I drove through Chinatown, found it too daunting, and opted to eat at the Birria stand further east.

Plus it seems that most places are lunch only. So where do I start? I live in the Montrose area, price and location are definitely a factor, but am definitely willing to travel for better fare. He mentioned a couple dishes, some street food crepe-like thing called jian bing and a tofu dish called mapuo dofu.

I'm going to check out some of the dumpling places from the crawls, but any thoughts on a more wide ranging dinner-time option?

anonymouseater said...

Rubiao

Sorry, I hide my real e-mail to protect my identity and prevent spam. But I have a hotmail account that I review about once a week. It is sunravenus at hotmail.com.

I found it difficult to dive into Chinatown, but I did. My first favorite Chinatown restaurant, about 20 years ago, was Lai Lai Dumpling House. For a lot of non-Asians, it seems to be a common entry-level Chinatown restaurant. Perhaps I liked Lai Lai because I was in college, didn't know Chinese food, and was into giant plates of noodles and fried rice at low prices. Now it seems greasy. My 10-year old loves it, but it isn't high cuisine.

Some of the more accessible and popular restaurants are Chinese/Vietnamese fusion, such as Tan Tan and Sinh Sinh. Both restaurants are huge, loud, and fun, with large menus. Sinh Sinh is best for a large group and hot pot. But they also have good live seafood and barbecue dishes. Tan Tan has an encyclopedic menu and TV screens with photos of dishes. It is quite good.

If you are really adventurous, the most unusual place to try a wide variety of dishes is Sichuan Cuisine. Many dishes are extremely spicy and tongue-numbing. Some dishes are just plain wierd.

There are at least a dozen other great restaurants that I love, but those may be the best -- and the most common -- starting points.

Anonymous said...

pho nguyen on beechnut and wilcrest has the best bun bo hue IMO

Alice said...

My husband, 2 year old daughter, and I tried the Bun bo hue this weekend. It was so much better than pho. It made pho taste so bland. Anyhow, I noticed a lot of people ordering some kind of noodle soup there with shrimp balls. Any idea what that is?

I wouldn't consider Tan Tan or Sinh Sinh Chinese food. When I went to Beijing, I found the food there to be really bland and overly spicy. The closest thing to real Chinese food that I've found is Spicy China.

my said...

the best bun ho hue in houston is kim chau. the real deal bun bo hue and they are well known for it. there is one in longpoint and another in bellaire.