Most people, when asked about Vietnamese food, usually think first of phở. More specifically, at least in Metro Vancouver, they tend to think of the Saigon-style pho from the southern part of Vietnam. The broth tends to be darker in colour with more of a “beefy” flavour compared to the lighter and more fragrant broth typical of the Hanoi-style pho from the northern part of the country.
Bun bo Hue, technically written as bún bò Huế and pronounced “boon baw hway,” is neither. Originating from the city of Huế in Central Vietnam (and hence the capitalization of Hue in its name), bun bo Hue is a spicy noodle soup with a complex broth that is simultaneously sour, sweet and salty as well. It literally translates as rice vermicelli (bun) with beef (bo), prepared Hue style.
Our journey to find the best bowl of bun bo Hue in the city starts at Thai Son (#2215 – 4653 Garden City Road), located upstairs in the same strip mall as Strike and Exit on Garden City Road. The restaurant is consistently popular, offering the usual assortment of Vietnamese food like pho, spring rolls and banh mi sandwiches.
Listed as “Bun Bo Hue Thai Son Dac Biet” on the menu ($8.50 for small, as shown), the bowl here includes “special spicy beef, Vietnamese ham, pork balls [and] pork hock with vermicelli in soup.” Don’t get this “vermicelli” confused with the noodles that accompany a dry vermicelli bowl. Instead of the flatter pho noodles, you get rounder rice noodles, similar to the “lai fun” you might find at Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants. This is typical of bun bo Hue.
The broth is mostly brown in color with a slight red-orange glow on top from the chili oil. Despite what might be a slightly frightful appearance, I didn’t find this version of bun bo Hue to be particularly spicy.
The pork hock, which includes a thick layer of skin and fat, was mostly pale in colour, not really taking on much flavour at all. Indeed, this was my experience with the bun bo Hue at Thai Son in general; it wasn’t as rich and complex as I had hoped. I did like the inclusion of the pork balls, though.
Image credit: Michael Kwan
The one-time home of weekly Dot Com Pho meetups, Pho Lan (6950 Number 3 Road) is a Richmond treasure that has withstood the test of time. I’d been to this restaurant dozens of times over the course of several years and it has never disappointed. That said, I’m a creature of habit, so I’d usually end up getting the same #16 large (pho with rare steak and tripe) or #33 (grilled chicken and spring roll on rice vermicelli).
As it turns out, Pho Lan also serves up a mean bowl of spicy bun bo Hue soup ($9.75 for the medium). What you’ll find is that while the specific ingredients included in bun bo Hue may vary from restaurant to restaurant, almost all of them will inevitably include pork hock and Vietnamese ham. Pho Lan does that, as well as well-done flank. Unlike Thai Son, there are no pork balls to be found.
If you are in search of a richer and more flavourful broth, Pho Lan is the place to go. If anything, you may find that the broth here is on the saltier side. You’ll also notice the generous helping of chili oil and chili flakes floating on top of the soup. These additions add a nice kick to the dish, but they’re surprisingly not overwhelming.
All this said, it’s almost as if the broth for the bun bo Hue is the exact same broth as for the regular pho, except with the addition of chili oil and chili flakes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not exactly original. The pork hock was decidedly more “brown” in colour and had a lot more meat attached to it.
Of the three restaurants featured here, I enjoyed the actual noodles at Pho Lan the best. They weren’t overcooked and mushy; the noodles had a slight chew and toothiness to them, making for a very satisfying slurp. I also found that Pho Lan offered the largest portion of meat. The bowl was practically overflowing as it arrived at the table.
For the third and final stop on our spicy Vietnamese noodle soup journey, we arrive at a very unassuming strip mall off Garden City Road. You could drive by Pho Han (#110 – 9020 Capstan Way) hundreds of times and not give it a second thought. But you should. What I’ve learned over the years is that some of the humblest Vietnamese restaurants with the fewest frills tend to offer the most amazing food.
While the regular pho at Pho Han is available in small or large bowls, the bun bo Hue only comes in one size (the same as a large bowl) for $8.75. Like Pho Lan and Thai Son, the bowl here also comes with beef, Vietnamese ham and pork hock, along with the round rice vermicelli noodles in a spicy soup. However, Pho Han is the only restaurant on this list that also includes pork blood, which is one of the more traditional ingredients included in bun bo Hue.
Some people are turned off by pork blood. Other people love it. The congealed blood has a smooth and gelatinous texture, not unlike a slightly dense tofu with a slight porky aroma. The pork hock was not quite as pale as Thai Son, but not as dark as Pho Lan. It was somewhere in between.
What really stood out for me about the bun bo Hue at Pho Han was the broth. It’s decidedly more fragrant and the herbs are much more pronounced. You can really taste the citrus-mint like flavour of the lemongrass. Even the colour of the broth is different, taking on more of a yellow hue rather than a deeper brown. It’s not any less heavy, per se, but there is an aromatic quality to it that I appreciate.
The noodles themselves were too short, as were the bean sprouts offered as a garnish on the side. This detracted from my overall enjoyment of the dish, but not to the point where I would not recommend Pho Han to anyone looking for a great bowl of noodles at a very reasonable price.
For my money, Pho Han is the overall winner of this shootout. I just wish I could transplant the noodles and meat from Pho Lan into the broth from Pho Han. Then, I’d have the perfect bowl of bun bo Hue.