Dish: Bamboo Shoot Duck Noodle Soup
Place: Sub Sand, International District
In the bowl: Rice vermicelli noodles, bamboo shoots, fried shallots and peanuts, and Thai basil.
Supporting cast/What to do: Along with your soup, you get a plate of cold duck pieces (on the bone), shredded cabbage, more fried shallots and peanuts, Thai basil, and a small bowl of ginger fish sauce (nuoc mam gung). You can use the sauce as a dip, or pour it over the duck and cabbage, eating your “salad” at whatever intervals you like along with your soup.
Noodling around: Sub Sand is a friendly little restaurant, where the owner is quite happy to explain any of the dishes on the menu. When I was torn between the two duck noodle dishes, he explained that the “herbel duck egg noodle soup” is made with thick noodles in a chicken broth that includes soy sauce, with the duck fried and in the bowl. I realized that this is basically the same dish I had at Hue Ky Mi Gia at the end of last year, which is why I instead opted for the equally typo-ed “bamboo shot duck noodle soup.”
This soup has a simple and comforting chicken broth flavor to it, with the noodles soft and slurpable. The fried shallots and peanuts add crunch, and the basil boosts the broth welcome herbal notes. My favorite part, though, are the bamboo shoots. The recipe calls for dried bamboo, which have more complex flavor and a chewy texture which I enjoy.
I especially like the bamboo shoot duck noodle soup because of the salad on the side. The duck, which the owner says is steamed, is somewhat fatty, which lends flavor. And the ginger fish sauce is superb, the ginger rounding out and slightly rising above the sweet, salty, spicy, and sour aspects of the sauce. It’s perfect on both meat and vegetables.
I did notice that I was thirsty after the meal, so I suspect there’s MSG in the food. If it wasn’t in the duck soup, it might have been in my partner’s “Crab Past Noodle Soup,” which isn’t something from history, but instead made with crab paste.
If you want more: Sub Sand offers few appetizers, a number of spring rolls, and various salads, but given the name, I wanted to try a sandwich. You’ll pay considerably more for a banh mi sandwich here than at the nearby Vietnamese delis, but my BBQ pork sub ($3.99) was delicious, even if it had a few nontraditional ingredients, like lettuce.
Be aware/beware: This is a family0run restaurant, so you might see children playing in the dining area, curling up in the front window, or watching a video on the computer while sprawled in a booth.
More of a problem, though, were the utensils, or in honor of Sub Sand’s name, what I’ll shorten to “utens.” The metal chopsticks, similar to what you’ll find in many Korean restaurants, are thin, and not conducive to picking up slippery vermicelli noodles. I’m generally skilled with ‘sticks, but with these had an uphill battle throughout the meal.
Even worse are the black, plastic soup spoons. One design cut enables them to stand upright against the bowl, keeping them from sliding in the soup. That’s smart. But while they’re smooth on one of the long sides, they’ve got slots on the opposite side to supposedly help catch noodles. Instead, these slots create chaos as noodles and other bits hang down off of them, slapping food into the face of unsuspecting diners. Worse, if you’re right-handed, the slots create an uncomfortable feeling on the lips when you’re trying to drink from the spoon. Distracting and disconcerting.
I won’t hesitate to say that Sub Sand has the worst utens I’ve ever used at a restaurant.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on May 14, 2012.