Where to hu tieu: Introducing a dish that might become your new favorite
One night, when I was a UC Irvine undergraduate in the ’90s, some dorm mates regaled me about a dish they’d just had. It had an anise-perfumed soup, supple noodles and paper-thin slices of raw beef that cooked themselves in the bowl. It was spelled “pho” but, per my Vietnamese roommate, was pronounced “fuh?” as though you were asking a question. The place to have it, everyone agreed, was just a few freeway exits from our campus in a place called Little Saigon, where dozens of shops made it and sold it for cheap.
After multiple trips to slurp countless bowls, a realization came: Little Saigon was a treasure trove of undiscovered dishes from a rich food culture my 19-year-old palate knew nothing about. Pho was just the beginning. There were the protein-ladened rice platter called com tam, crisp-crusted banh mi sandwiches filled with charcuterie, and even more noodle soups that, to me, were even more intriguing than pho.
I found bun bo hue heartier and beefier. I loved the softness of bun rieu and its orbs made of pork and crab meat. And then there was hu tieu nam vang, which was my favorite of them all.
Through the years, I learned that the noodle originated from the Teochew people who migrated from China’s Guangdong province and profilerated in Phnom Penh and Saigon. And unlike pho, hu tieu nam vang’s distinguishing factor is that there is no distinguishing factor. Regional variations abound. It might be served with rice noodles, yellow egg noodles or chewy clear noodles made from tapioca — or combinations of all of the above. Toppings also vary wildly but can include ground pork, sliced pork, pork cracklings, shrimp and fishcake.
About the only constant is the clear, pork bone-based broth, which is long-simmered to extract all the umami. Any restaurant that serves hu tieu nam vang will also offer a rainbow of table-side condiments. Most pride themselves on a signature chili paste, a hellish concoction of crushed dried chilies swimming in oil as red as pepperoni grease. But there will also be pickled garlic, pickled green peppers, hoisin, soy sauce, fish sauce and white pepper — all paints to use on the blank canvas of a dish that is infinitely customizable. So if you don’t end up liking it, it’s your own fault.
So while pho shops still reign in Little Saigon, purveyors of hu tieu nam vang aren’t far behind. There are now more restaurants that specialize in my favorite Vietnamese noodle soup than there ever was. Start your exploration with these three establishments, each one distinctly different than the next — just like the dish itself.
When you want the best broth
4401 W 1st St #4016, Santa Ana
Hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Bowls starting at $12.50
Trieu Chau is an unapologetic dive. It always has been. But for more than 30 years and despite the grimy tables and sagging ceiling tiles, it still inspires long waits and a loyal fan base who arrives as early as 7 in the morning to sip its secret recipe soup. It’s simply the best non-pho broth in Orange County. There is no equal. Its umami levels are off the charts. You could conceivably make a meal out of it and be nourished for days.
The broth is the base of the hu tieu nam vang, which it simply lists on the menu as “noodle soup.” You can choose from egg or rice noodles, either thin or wide, or a combo of two types. The most popular topping option is called the “Chao Chow,” which will endow your bowl with liver, fish balls, tender flaps of fish cake, ground pork meat, sliced pork, boiled shrimp, bone-on dark-meat chicken and a chopped piece of roasted duck with scraps of its gelatinous skin still attached.
If you fancy a Chinese doughnut — a salty, hollow stick used for dunking into your soup — you had better get there by 10. They’re cold by 11 a.m. By noon, all supplies are depleted. And at 5 p.m., Trieu Chau closes up shop.
Perhaps the best way to experience Trieu Chau’s sumptuous porky nectar is to order your noodle soup “dry.” This will separate the noodles and protein in one bowl; the broth on the side in another. But you don’t just get the broth; you’re also given one of the humongous hunks of pork bone that was boiled in the soup pot to enrich it — and at no extra charge.
You are encouraged to pick up the bone and tear off the tender scraps of meat with your teeth like a dog. No one will blink an eye. Table manners aren’t important here. Before a recent remodel that only slightly updated the dank dining room and added a tablet for a Yelp waiting list, there was always a chance that you could be seated next to a stranger who’d never heard of Emily Post.
A fellow food writer remembered how he once sat with an elderly lady who propped her feet up on a chair and started clipping her toenails after she finished her meal. I once witnessed a fellow diner taking a sip from a serving spoon before he put it back into the jar of pickled chiles without a trace of shame. True story.
These days, there are posted signs with dire warnings that the police will be called on dine-and-dashers. But those are the perils when a place like this has been around forever and everyone knows the food is this good.
When you want the best noodles and toppings
Hu Tieu De Nhat
9972 Garden Grove Blvd Ste. F, Garden Grove
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.
Bowls starting at $12
Hu Tieu De Nhat is a hole in the wall. It has exactly nine tables: two of them outside — all of them sticky and worn down in spots where they’ve been rubbed by a thousand elbows. And if you come anywhere close to lunchtime, forget about scoring a parking spot in the lot shared by the six other businesses in the strip mall. This is exacerbated by the fact that Hu Tieu De Nhat is currently the highest rated restaurant in Orange County for hu tieu nam vang on Yelp, and it’s only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed on Tuesdays. So either go early or adopt a monk-like patience while you wait for a table to open up.
Located in Garden Grove, on the border of Little Saigon where it bleeds into Koreatown, Hu Tieu De Nhat serves nothing else than its namesake noodle soup. There are no stir-fries or rice dishes. So the only choice you need to make is what kind of noodle you want: either egg, rice or chewy, clear tapioca. Then come the toppings. Though the menu is divided into permutations of different protein options, the only one you should consider is the special, which offers nearly all of them in one bowl.
The shrimp are large and plump, the ground pork and pork meat slices are so tender they melt. There’s even quail egg and fried rendered nubbins of crunchy pork belly that inch you toward a heart attack one decadent cube at a time. But especially great are the fish cakes, which get formed into rustic footballs and taste homemade.
Like at other joints, opting for your noodles “dry” will dress them in a savory sauce while the broth is served on the side. Both versions are exemplary, so it really depends what you’re in the mood for. Does your sore throat need soothing from a deluge of hot broth? Try the noodles submerged in soup. Want to savor and appreciate their texture? Then have it “dry.”
But whatever your choice, do not ignore the condiments, especially the house-cured pickled garlic and jalapenos, which are a signature of the shop and an essential part of the experience. They’re bright, snappy and addictive counterpoints to the rich soup and the pleasant chewiness of the noodle. Never mind that they’ll foul up your breath for the rest of the afternoon.
When you want to take a dinner date
Grandpa’s Kitchen - Grill Bar 168
14208 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.;
Friday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight
Bowls starting at $14.99
Grandpa’s Kitchen is known for its dry pho, a unique specialty of a city called Pleiku in Vietnam’s central highland region. It is one of the few restaurants in Little Saigon to offer the dish. So if at this point in your life you’ve only experienced your pho noodles submerged in soup, you have to try it dry, at least once.
When you do, you’re served two bowls of food. The first will be the rice noodles coated in a savory and sweet sauce topped with thinly sliced flank steak, fat-rimmed brisket, crisped pork cracklings and lettuce. The second will be the soup — a bona fide pho broth, aromatic of anise, insulated by a layer of melted beef fat which keeps the liquid scalding hot and two tiny beef meatballs bobbing on the surface like buoys.
But one thing you should know about this specialty dish — listed as “Grandpa’s Dry Rice Noodle” on the menu — is that while it is very good, the egg noodle version called “Grandma’s Dry Egg Noodle” is slightly better. And the hu tieu nam vang, which is virtually identical to the “Grandma” noodle except with more proteins added on, is even better still.
Whether you take the hu tieu nam vang dry or soupy, your noodles will be covered with meat. You may find that there are just a bit too many pieces of pork heart and liver, but they are, in fact, outnumbered by the generous portions of sliced pork. Also in the bowl: a smattering of fat-gushing pork lardons, more ground pork, two quail eggs and three boiled shrimp.
Bits of celery are thrown in for crunch. Their texture contrasts the slightly too soft egg noodles, which, if you order “dry,” will be lubricated in a special sweet-and-salty soy-based sauce.
You are encouraged to cut the richness with a squeeze of lime, some herbs, squirts of Sriracha and the side jars of pickled garlic and jalapenos. And then there’s the side of broth with floating bits of ground pork and more celery. It may not be as flavorful as the other purveyors on this list, but it does the job.
It should be noted that Grandpa’s Kitchen offers more than just noodles. The house specials include filet mignon banh mi and a sizzling platter of steak. But what sets this restaurant apart from the others is that it’s not a dive or a hole-in-the-wall; it’s an actual restaurant.
The napkins are presented in a wicker basket. The friendly service staff takes your order with iPads and checks on you mid-meal. And with potted plants outside and string lights dangling above the dining room, you would not be embarrassed to bring a dinner date here.
Grandpa’s Kitchen is also one of the few hu tieu joints that is open late and that offers beer and soju, which at the other places would be an odd pairing for what’s normally breakfast.
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