Get to know the hotter, sexier, spicier Vietnamese noodle.
by Jay Friedman
October 2, 2018
A number of years ago, I wrote a love letter to bún bò Huế (BBH), espousing “the other Vietnamese noodle soup” as something worth trying, especially for breaking out of a pho rut. Eric Banh, chef/owner of Ba Bar, calls BBH the most flavorful Vietnamese soup, and while he’s proud of his own restaurant’s version, he’s been a fan of Hoang Lan, as it’s that restaurant’s specialty. In fact, you might think “bún bò Huế” is the name of that place, as the soup name is arguably more prominent than the restaurant name on the storefront sign.
Years later, while pho is still the favored and ubiquitous Vietnamese noodle soup in Seattle, bún bò hue remains a rival as my personal favorite. To be fair, pho and BBH are truly different beasts. Starting with the stock, pho simmers beef bones low and slow, while BBH 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, BBH has a deep, hearty broth. It’s full of flavor with fermented shrimp paste and loads of lemongrass. Further, brick-red annatto seeds impart passionate glow to the broth.
BBH is the spicier bowl, sometimes to the point of inducing a sweat. Interestingly, while pho’s herbs (Thai basil and cilantro or culantro) enhance the delicate flavor of the broth, BBH’s herbs (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 BBH is more exotic with banana blossoms (and sometimes purple cabbage). While both bowls offer opportunity for interactive play, BBH 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 BBH has round rice noodles that are softer.
How have Ba Bar and Hoang Lan’s bowls of BBH held up over the years? I believe they’re both as good as ever. Banh’s version of BBH is the more refined one—really clean-tasting but with an immediate hit of that funky fermented shrimp paste and tingles of lemongrass. Years back, the bowl was less adventurous, with all the meat off the bone and no pork blood cakes in the broth. Now there’s both ham hock and blood. But recall Banh’s adoration of Hoang Lan. He says their focus on BBH (serving up many more bowls per day than Ba Bar does) enables the restaurant to build up the broth, developing the desired lemongrass flavor. A bowl of BBH is a carnivore’s delight—rich, fatty, minerally, and gelatinous with a lot of animal in the bowl, as evidenced by beef brisket, pork shank, chả lụa (pork sausage loaf), pork blood cakes, beef tendon, and a huge ham hock.
Pricing at the two places is different. Ba Bar charges $13.50 for its BBH (it’s a dollar less for lunch only at the Capitol Hill location), while $9.00—tax included—gets you a large bowl at Hoang Lan. (They have a slightly smaller bowl available at a dollar discount.) Back in 2013, Eric Banh defended the relatively high price of his pho in a post that still exists on the Ba Bar blog, asserting, “There’s no way you can use quality ingredients in a dish that requires this much labor and get away with only charging five dollars unless you are cutting corners somewhere.” He opts to use higher quality meat in his menu items, and that extends to his BBH. “We want to provide something different, something with a bit more care and a bit more ambition,” he explains.
That ambition shows all-around at Ba Bar. Since my original write-up, Ba Bar has expanded to three locations, with talk of becoming an even bigger chain. At Ba Bar, you first pass by a pastry showcase before entering the contemporary dining room, complete with customers sipping fancy cocktails created by a bartender who occasionally climbs a high ladder to reach for top-shelf liquor. Compare that to Othello Station’s Hoang Lan, where a dirty parking lot provides rear entry to the restaurant, with a walk past the kitchen, bathrooms, sink, and storage before entering the dining area. No cocktails here—just a bunch of Vietnamese coffee starters, soon to be ordered by the primarily Vietnamese customers.
I’m happy with the BBH at both places. But while Ba Bar seems to be growing, I’m a bit partial to Hoang Lan, partly for the Vietnamese chatter in the dining room and on the television set, and partly because this hole-in-the-wall is at growing risk of departure due to ongoing development in the area. Something to mull over while slurping soup and noodles while enjoying a special feel of Vietnam.