Photo of bun bo hue by Candice WooMien Trung7530 Mesa College DriveLinda Vista858-576-0962
You readers know that I'll pretty much eat anything, but when the server asked if I'd like the congealed pig-blood cubes, I just couldn't bring myself to say “Yes.” I was ordering bun bo hue, a Vietnamese noodle soup, and cooked squares of blood, among other interesting tidbits, are a traditional component. I've had them before, but they're one of those rare foods that I most likely won't eat again. Luckily, they don't make or break the soup, and I do love that soup.
Both bun bo hue and pho, the Vietnamese dish with which you might be a little more familiar, are beef noodle soups, but the similarity ends there. While the predominant flavor in pho's broth comes from warm spices like star anise, cloves and cinnamon, bo bun hue's beef and pork stock gets its flavor and fragrance from fresh lemongrass and the earthy, salty addition of fermented shrimp paste. Compared with the garden-on-a-plate of vegetable garnishes that typically comes with pho, the veggie add-ins for bo bun hue are relatively spare. Some sliced onions and herbs sit atop the soup, and the side plate has some bean sprouts, shredded red cabbage, green-leaf lettuce and lime. Both include rice noodles, but the ones in pho are flat and rather thin. The bun, or noodles, in bun bo hue are round and thick and very satisfying to eat.
Mien Trung is one of the few spots in town where you can find this soup. It's a signature dish of the Hue province in central Vietnam, and most of our local Vietnamese restaurants serve Northern-style cuisine. It comes in regular or a deluxe, larger size—I stuck to the smaller size since we were also sharing a few other dishes. Included in the soup are morsels of beef shank, tendon and slices of a luncheon-meat-like pork loaf called cha lua, which is tastier than it sounds. Sometimes there's a piece of pork knuckle in there, too, but it was absent from the bowl on my last visit. This could be viewed as a positive or negative, depending on your outlook (I missed it). But, really, the meat is secondary, there to add even more flavor to the already rich, intensely flavored broth. In fact, I often bypass the meat and get straight to the noodles that have mixed with the warmed-through shredded vegetables and soaked up the broth.
This mom-and-pop shop is plain and small but clean. The trick to parking is to find a spot in the adjacent K Sandwiches lot—so you can conveniently stop in there to pick up a few croissants or a banh mi for later. Mien Trung's short menu specializes in noodle soups; there are several varieties, including duck and a crab-flavored tomato broth called bun rieu. There's steamed rice or noodles topped with barbequed meat and appetizers like Vietnamese spring rolls, although they use wheat-based spring-roll wrappers instead of rice paper. They also do some interesting Vietnamese snacks such as banh bot loc—chewy tapioca flour dumplings filled with bits of shrimp and pork that are wrapped and steamed in pieces of banana leaf.
But back to that delicious soup. Though its surface is dotted with drops of orange-red oil, that's just mild annatto seed oil, which is not really spicy at all. You can mix in some chili sauce from the condiment tray, if you're looking for more spice. The soup tastes unmistakably homemade, and you can see the mom, and sometimes the dad, back in the open galley kitchen, slowly stirring a pot of the broth. As I lifted the bowl to my mouth and drank deeply, I realized I should have ordered a larger bowl.
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