With the arrival of winter, the warmth of a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup beckons. And while Seattle may not boast the same level of quality as parts of northern or southern California, you can get good Vietnamese food here. In fact, when visitors arrive from out of town, Vietnamese is one cuisine I’m sure to show off in this city.
While some call it Chinatown, Seattle’s International District is partly comprised of an area known as Little Saigon. This region is concentrated with Vietnamese grocery stores, delis that do inexpensive banh mi sandwiches and rice boxes (a healthy portion of rice plus a couple of entrées for about $3.00), and reasonably priced sit-down restaurants. There are other Vietnamese restaurants scattered around the city as well, especially pho shops that compete with teriyaki joints in being the ubiquitous fast food of Seattle.
I love the interactivity of Vietnamese soups, as most come with a side plate of herbs, vegetables, and lime wedges. It’s a must to taste the broth as presented, and then figure out how to spice it up, both with herbs and perhaps jalapeños for heat. A squirt of lime can quickly brighten up the broth.
Best of all, bowls of Vietnamese soup offer a great diversity of noodles and other ingredients. Noodles can be made of rice, wheat, tapioca, and more. Meanwhile, your bowl may be filled with surprises like banana blossoms, ham hocks, quail eggs, pork blood cubes, and fish cakes—all offering fascinating flavors and textures. I could have happily recommended Huong Binh, featured previously for its congee and dumplings, as the best for many of the bowls, but in an attempt to offer more dining options, I present from eight restaurants ten bowls of Vietnamese noodle soup worth seeking in Seattle.
At Hoang Lan, the menu describes the Bun Bo Hue ($7, inclusive of tax, cash only) as “Vermicelli with pork hock, pork blood cake, beef tendon in hot and spicy soup.” Look closer and you’ll also find slices of onion, some herbs, and a couple of pork meatballs. Meanwhile, the side plate seems to vary visit-to-visit, but generally includes shredded cabbage, lettuce, banana blossoms, jalapeño, cilantro, bean sprouts, and lime—though last time there was lemon instead of lime. The soup has hints of lemongrass, chili (though only mildly spicy to me) and shrimp paste, along with an underlying depth that comes from many hours of beef bones simmering. The noodles are the thicker, round, rice vermicelli type, which are easy to grab with chopsticks.
Huong Binh is the unsung hero of Vietnamese restaurants in Seattle. The broad menu is full of high quality items, including a variety of traditional Vietnamese soups. One, mi vit tiem, is a rich duck broth with braised duck right in the soup. This is served weekdays only; on Saturdays and Sundays, as part of the weekend specials, the duck comes out of the broth. That’s when you’ll see virtually every table with at least one order of Bun Mang Vit ($8.75, cash only). This duck broth soup, fairly mild in flavor, has rice noodles and bamboo. It’s served with a sizeable plate of “poached duck salad” that has lots of bone-in duck (the server may ask if you want the bones removed), peanuts, and shallots. You’ll likely find yourself pouring lots of the ginger nuoc mam on the duck, as the juiced-up fish sauce flavor is fabulous.
Anthony Bourdain stopped in at Rainier Restaurant & BBQ last year because of its reputation for having a wide variety of exotic meats on a special menu, including cobra, deer, and frog. (I once sampled a lot of the dishes, and afterward my table sported what looked like the apocalyptic aftermath of the bombing of the local Woodland Park Zoo.) But the regular menu has more standard fare, and that’s where I found Hu Tieu Nam Vang ($6.50). This dish is made with sai-fun noodles, also known as cellophane or glass noodles, as they are clear in color (well, perhaps light gray is a better description) when cooked. The menu says that it comes with ground pork, BBQ pork, shrimp, and “inner pork” (this turned out to be intestines), but it also had quail eggs, culantro, chives, green onion, squid, fishcakes, and celery. In fact, the light broth had strong Chinese celery notes, pleasant enough that I didn’t add much from the side dish of lime, jalapeño, and bean sprouts.
It seems like everyone’s got an opinion about the best pho in town. At this point, the Pho ($6.99, large, $6.15, small) at Pho So 1 has my favorite. With consistency a problem at many places, I find that the broth at Pho So 1 is continually fresh and flavorful, with a depth of beefiness and spices. I always order #20: pho tai, nam, gau, gan, sach—rare beef, well-done flank, fatty flank, tendon and tripe—along with the banh pho rice noodles, onions, green onions, and beef broth. I especially love the tendon for its fattiness and the tripe for its chewiness. (It’s hard to find these two items at pho restaurants outside of big cities.) And the variety enables each slurp and spoonful to offer something different.
More upscale in décor and dish quality is Ba Bar. Combining street food and cocktail appeal, Ba Bar can feels like a private party, especially when it’s Wednesday Kung Fu Karaoke night or Friday Kung Fu Movie night. If you’re there for the refined food, you’ll find Mi Vit Tiem ($13) of interest. How does Ba Bar elevate this tender duck leg noodle soup? By using duck from renowned Maple Leaf Farms, and preparing duck leg confit for the dish. The soup is made even more sophisticated by the addition of longan, Chinese dates, shiitake mushrooms, and lots of chives. It’s got great depth of flavor.
At the Tamarind Tree, the lengthy menu can be challenging to navigate, especially if you’re seeking noodle soup, as there are sections named soup, specialty noodle soup, noodle soup, and specialty noodle in bowl or on platter. Once you find Bun Oc ($7.25 lunch, $9.50 dinner), typically called snail noodle soup, you’ll see that it’s instead referred to as “Escargot Meatballs Noodle.” Meatballs is an apt description, as in lieu of actual snails, a Tamarind Tree bowl has a half-dozen patties of pork and snail-meat floating in a pork and tomato broth (which I found somewhat subtle in flavor). The shredded morning glory and banana blossoms perk up the broth, though, as does the ginger sauce.
Mi Quang ($8.75) is making its way to the top of my list of favorite Vietnamese soups, and the version at The Lemongrass is a good one. They call it “yellow noodle soup,” with the noodles made of rice and colored with the addition of turmeric. The soup comes with shrimp, pork, fishcakes, and crushed peanuts, along with the tell-tale, toasted sesame rice crackers atop the bowl. The broth has a seemingly creamy quality to it, and I love the varying textures of the ingredients in the bowl.
Also enjoyable at The Lemongrass is Banh Canh Tom Cua ($8.75). Most noticeable in this soup are the thicker noodles, which are made from tapioca. This version has captivating color and a fairly generous portion of crab meat and shrimp.
On the subject of tapioca noodles, Green Leaf serves them in a dish called Banh Canh Dac Biet, or Special Udon Noodles Soup) ($9.95). The “banh canh” noodles swell in size to resemble Japanese udon noodles—hence, the name. Like The Lemongrass’ banh canh tom cua, it has shrimp and crab meat. But it also has a pork hock and pork blood cubes, like Hoang Lan’s bun bo hue. The distinguishing factor, though, is the burnt onion flavor, which is intentional and a welcomed counterpoint to the slightly sweet broth.
Also at Green Leaf is a menu item with spelling that makes me smile: Bun Mam, or “Anchovery Noodles Soup” ($9.95). I expect such a soup to have a heady flavor from fermented anchovies, but while I’m told that Green Leaf uses anchovy extract, the broth is actually quite sweet. The menu references sapa fish as an ingredient, and though I’ve yet to get explanation as to what that is, I take note of the shrimp, squid, and sliced pork in the soup. Most interesting, though, is the use of eggplant in this dish, as well as the very soft, round rice noodles.
(Originally published at Serious Eats on January 9.)