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If you really want a wake-up call, bun bo Hue makes a double espresso seem like a mild sedative.
In Hue, where Vietnamese emperors ruled the country from the mid-18th century until 1945, this chile-infused beef and pork noodle soup, garnished with banana flower shreds and maroon-colored amaranth leaves, is a morning ritual. Vendors begin cooking hours before dawn, tending roaring-hot fires under steamy pots of broth, so that commuters can stop at street-corner stalls and cafés to jump-start their days with bowls of the lemony-peppery delicacy.
This spicy and tart buzz in a bowl has now made the leap from ancient Asian capital to Orange County mini-mall. The local craze for bun bo Hue (pronounced boon bo hooway) gathered steam a few years ago with the growing competition among restaurants specializing in central Vietnamese cuisine. Although central-style restaurants are the best bet for exploring the nuances of the piquant soup, these days you can find it in Vietnamese fast-food delis and shopping-mall kiosks. Even places known for pho, North Vietnam's milder noodle-soup relative, are on the bun bo bandwagon. Tony Lam, owner of Vien Dong, one of the area's oldest northern-style restaurants, explains: "You have to have bun bo Hue; everyone eats it now."
In Little Saigon, bun bo Hue connoisseurs say Pho Cong Ly Saigon Deli Restaurant turns out the most authentic—and hottest—version. Its viscous, beefy broth is enhanced with mam ruoc, an odoriferous fermented shrimp paste. Definitely not for the squeamish, the standard recipe calls for poached blood cubes, a chunk of skin-on pork hock and pungent herbs called rau ram. At the other end of the spice spectrum are the delicate adaptations at Quan Hy and Ngoc Hue, where precisely sliced meats and shrimp sausage are cut into fanciful diamond shapes. Blood cubes are noticeably absent from the garnish, and more benign greens replace the eye-watering rau ram leaves. At the beautifully designed Ngoc Hue, whose chef previously cooked at Quan Hy, the menu features a refined version accompanied by sticky rice dumplings stuffed with minced shrimp and crunchy rice disks topped with pork and slivered shiitake mushrooms.
Somewhere between these extremes lie the sensibilities of most central-style restaurants. At An Cuu Hue, for instance, the bun bo Hue broth is moderately spicy and contains particularly good shrimp sausage. Bun Bo Hue So 1's steamy bowls come in nearly a dozen versions, while Ngu Binh's menu is only in Vietnamese. And at Quan Vy Da, side dishes include fresh steamed rice rolls called banh uot and a tropical shake of soursop, durian or jackfruit. Many customers at An Cuu Hue stir in the café's homemade lemon grass-chile paste to rev up the heat, and no offense is taken if you decline the blood custard or any other unidentifiable embellishment.
This isn't to say, however, that every traditional accompaniment or side dish that follows bun bo Hue to your table is going to be some sort of pickled horror. Although bun bo Hue originated with Vietnam's rural peasantry, the dim sum-like snacks that are de rigueur with the soup—crispy-edged pancakes, plump little dumplings and long sheets of handkerchief-sheer rice dough rolled around fillings—were invented in the ancient imperial kitchens for a discerning royalty. A particular standout at An Cuu Hue is banh khoai, a rice pancake that's crisp on one side and soft on the other and topped with shrimp and pork. At Hue Rendezvous, dainty shrimp-topped, silver-dollar-size pancakes called banh beo are steamed in individual ceramic dishes and served by the dozen.
In an only-in-America twist, many Vietnamese immigrants from regions other than the central highlands are getting their first taste of bun bo Hue in the suburbs of Orange County. Since the soup has caught on, there are as many versions as there are cooks, and people look for a style that suits their tastes. However, before some Westside, Euro-accented master chef deconstructs it, garnishes it with bloody sea foam and charges you half a mortgage payment, take a trip on the 405 to where Southern California meets Vietnam.
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The Soup Kitchens
An Cuu Hue, 413 N. Euclid St.,
Santa Ana; (714) 554-9900.
Bun Bo Hue So 1, 15450 Brookhurst St., Westminster; (714) 531-4475.
Gia Hoi Bun Bo Hue, 9541 Bolsa Ave.,
Westminster; (714) 531-3855.
Hue Rendezvous Restaurant,
15562 Brookhurst St.,
Westminster; (714) 775-7192.
Ngoc Hue Restaurant,
10212 Westminster Ave. No. 113,
Garden Grove; (714) 636-7039.
Ngu Binh, 12072 Magnolia St. No. 107,
Westminster; (714) 903-6000.
Pho Cong Ly Saigon Deli Restaurant,
8911 Westminster Ave.,
Garden Grove; (714) 373-4622.
Quan Hy, 9727 Bolsa Ave.,
Westminster; (714) 775-7179.
Quan Vy Da, 9950 Bolsa Ave. Unit B.
Westminster; (714) 531-2905.
Vien Dong, 14271 Brookhurst St.,
Garden Grove; (714) 531-8253.