Sunday, February 04, 2007

Travel Dish: Bun Bo Thanh Noi Hue (Vietnam)

This is the second in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.Noodle Oasis Tucked in an Alley
47A Tran Cao Van, District 1
Cash only

You’re probably thinking that the first noodle soup I ate in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City was the ubiquitous pho, the popular beef noodle soup eaten by many locals for breakfast and now available all day long for tourists. But you’d be wrong. My first steaming bowl of noodles was the bun bo hue, a Northern-style noodle soup using thick rice noodles slightly thinner than the Japanese udon. And I found a bowl in a tiny alley “restaurant” surrounded by up-and-coming trendy cafes in Saigon's District 1.

Bun Bo Thanh Noi Hue (let’s call it Bo Thanh for short) is just a 10-minute walk from the Notre Dame Cathedral, and you’d miss it if you were looking for a place with a door. Instead, it’s inside a covered alley so when you walk up you feel like you’re dropping off your motorbike at the mechanic’s. The narrow space fits two rows of small wooden tables on each side and a friendly staff who don’t speak any English. This was the time for pointing.

I pointed at the menu on the wall at a dish with the word bun. A few minutes later, the waitress brought to my table a bowl of noodle soup with a variety of ingredients: crab balls, slices of beef and pork, and a pig’s hoof. My guess was this is the house special bun and it was delicious. Despite the heat of the city, I felt cooled when I started eating the hot broth that was tasty and multi-dimensional (meaning it tasted like a whole bunch of stuff I couldn’t figure out). The bun also came with a quaint straw basket of fresh herbs, shredded cabbage, lime and what looked like thinly shredded threads of taro. I added some to my bowl for good measure, but mostly savored the broth and juicy meat in my bowl. (I did leave the pig’s feet untouched, however.)

Curious to see what else was on the menu, I pointed at another dish called Banh Canh Tom Cua. What came out was another bowl of bun, but this looked like a seafood special with tiny pieces of fresh crab and shrimp over thick noodles. Again, the broth was tasty but I could definitely taste a seafood influence opposed to the beef broth in my first bun. The broth was also a bit thicker, but I don’t think that enhanced or deterred from the dish. What I found really distracting were the pieces of crab, which still had a bit of shell that created a crackling sound when I ate.

(Side note: I loved the bowls used at Bo Thanh. They all had this vintage, antique look to them that was so precious. If I could brand their bowls and package their noodle soups, I bet I’d make a million. ... If I were into those capitalist pig-type of projects.)

While the Banh Canh Tom Cua wasn’t what I expected and wasn’t as successful as the beef bun, it really didn’t matter when you’re paying less than a $1 a bowl. My total bill for this lunch of two bowls of noodle was D27,000 (Vietnamese dong), or $1.68.

Despite not having air-conditioning, Bo Thanh is a quaint local spot that’ll introduce you to the genuine kindness of the local people that you hear so often about and some mighty tasty broth. It’s well worth hunting this place down when you’ve tired of the tourist traps.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (perfect for foodies seeking authentic Vietnamese soup)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Postscript Saigon: Neighborhood Districts

In Saigon/HCMC, the city is divided into districts, similar to the arrondisements in Paris. Most of the districts are just known by numbers, such as Districts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. But further out, there are names to the districts such as Phu Nhuan and Binh Thanh. However, much of the bustling activity is centered in District 1, the heart of the city.

District 1 is actually quite big, probably the size of San Francisco. So just because your hotel is in District 1, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll be close to the tourist attractions, which is primarily on Dong Khoi road. In fact, Dong Khoi is growing in such popularity that a Gloria Jean's coffee shop recently opened there and a large Louis Vuitton shop is scheduled to open soon.


Anonymous said...

OK, so you didn't eat the pig's hoof but what do you imagine it would taste like? Also, what was the most unusual menu item you saw in Vietnam?

Anonymous said...

OK, so you didn't eat the pig's hoof but what do you imagine it would taste like? Also, what was the most unusual menu item you saw in Vietnam?

Single Guy Ben said...

I actually did bite into a tiny bit of the hoof just to see what it might be like. It was a bit rubbery, so I didn't go any further. As for really unusual menu items, I don't know if I saw anything really crazy. The most unusual was snake as an appetizer on the menu in the restaurant at the Mekong Delta. But then I'm getting ahead of myself. You're going to have to read that in a future blog posting.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the seafood noodles were less impressive, but it looks wonderful.
Were the crunchy calcium chips the only problem?

As an aside, my mango finally ripened and the garlic mango noodles were fantaaaastic. I couldn't find the right noodels, so I made them. I found the only recipe for Shanghai style wheat noodles on the internet-written by someone who couldn't find ANY recipe online, so she resorted to calling a friend's mother.

Snake sounds interesting.

Single Guy Ben said...

Yes, the seafood noodles looks great. Don't you love the bowl? The crab bites with shell was annoying, but the soup also suffers from the broth's texture that was a bit like too much cornstarch. It was, however, very tasty.

Seth, you sound too much of an expert cook if you make your own Shanghai noodles! I'm impressed!

Anonymous said...

(blush) It was quick and easy. Maybe 10 min of prep and 30 min to rest the dough(and a convenient time to chop and prep the other ingredients). I've been spoiled by a couple places in Seattle that make their own noodles, packaged noodles just aren't the same. As a matter of fact, I might just go whip up a batch now.