A “Love Letter” to Bún Bò Hue, the “Other” Vietnamese Noodle Soup
Aside from a perfect partner, is it strange that the first thing I like to see in the morning is a bowl of soup noodles? It’s what the people of Vietnam enjoy for breakfast, typically in the way of pho. And while pho may be the most ubiquitous Vietnamese noodle soup in Seattle, I’ve grown open-minded enough to want to wake up with another: bún bò hue.
Pho and bún bò hue are truly different animals.
Starting with the stock, pho simmers beef bones low and slow, while bún bò hue brings heat to both beef and pork bones. (Those same meats will appear in the respective final bowls.) While pho has a delicately soothing clear broth that can ease me into the morning, bún bò hue’s deep, hearty broth hits me over the head and gets me right into the game. It’s full of flavor with fermented shrimp paste and loads of lemongrass. Further, brick-red annatto seeds impart passionate glow to the broth.
Indeed, bún bò hue is the spicier bowl, sometimes to the point of inducing a sweaty affair. Interestingly, while pho’s herbs (Thai basil and cilantro or culantro) enhance the delicate flavor of the broth, bún bò hue’s (typically mint, rau ram, and perilla) are dynamic but serve to temper the strong broth. Both come with bean sprouts, onion, jalapeno, and lime, but bún bò hue is more exotic with banana blossoms (and sometimes purple cabbage). While both bowls offer opportunity for interactive play, bún bò hue is more herbaceous and complex, with terrific balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.
Even the noodles are different, with pho having flat rice noodles, while bún bò hue has softer and more sensual round rice noodles.
Chef/owner Eric Banh just added bún bò hue to Ba Bar’s breakfast menu, as he wants the world to discover what he believes to be the most flavorful Vietnamese soup. “When I was growing up, I was terrified by it because it’s so spicy, but now I’m addicted to the flavor,” he explained, adding, “Whenever people talk about it, I salivate.” The same is true for me. I salivate at the thought of all kinds of soup noodles. As with the thought of a lover, my heart races for bún bò hue.
Much like his pho, Banh’s version of bún bò hue is a refined one—really clean-tasting but with an immediate hit of that funky fermented shrimp paste and tingles of lemongrass. Meats, as you’d expect, are high-quality, with slices of both beef shank and alluringly fatty pork shank in the soup. (Ba Bar serves the pork off the bone to make the eating experience more user-friendly.) I find myself wishing for more noodles to enjoy with the delicious broth.
Banh has high praise for the bún bò hue at Hoang Lan, which is where I first discovered the soup years ago, before the nearby Othello Station train stop was even envisioned. How popular is Hoang Lan’s bún bò hue? The soup name is arguably more prominent than the restaurant name on the storefront sign!
According to Banh, Hoang Lan’s focus on bún bò hue (they serve about 20 times more bowls per day than Ba Bar) enables the restaurant to build up the broth, developing the desired lemongrass flavor. Like a good relationship, this shows that time is the key to richness.
Hoang Lan’s bún bò hue is a carnivore’s delight. In the soup you’ll find cha lu? (pork sausage loaf), pork blood cakes, beef tendon, and a huge ham hock. Gelatinous and fatty, that hock is unwieldy to eat, but combined with the other meats makes Hoang Lan’s bún bò hue a wilder, more primal experience.
If pho is like the long-term relationship in which the sex is comfortable and convenient, then bún bò hue is for those still seeking the wild side, wanting spark to combat the stale.
(Still not quite satisfied? Travel produces more adventure. For the “non-monogamous,” HA&VL in Portland serves a rotation of seven different varieties of Vietnamese noodle soup, providing a chance to enjoy a different partner daily. Even there, though, you might end up with spicy bún bò hue as your ultimate choice.)
Originally published March 4 in a revised version in the print edition of Seattle Weekly.