One of my very favorite noodle soups in the entire world is bun bo hue, a Vietnamese noodle soup that originates from Hue, formerly the capital city of Vietnam when the Nguyen Dynasty seized control of the country and ruled from this central city. Because of the royal history of Hue, many “upper class” dishes, such as banh nam, banh bot loc, and banh it tran (the main theme of all three? All are EXTREMELY laborious and time-consuming to make!) originate from here. In addition, bun bo hue, likely the most famous dish of them all, originated here. Bun bo hue is definitely one of the spicier noodle soup dishes you can get in Vietnam; it is rich both from being flavored with shrimp paste as well as pork and beef bones, but also gets its bright red color from the anatto seeds that are used to further flavor it. Lots of garlic, shallots, and to me, its biggest key fragrance, lemongrass, are all added and contribute to this multi-layered, extremely complexly flavored broth. Round, thick rice noodles are added to the broth, along with slices of beef pork, pork hocks, and cubed pork blood. Banana flowers are used as a unique garnish (you would never see this served with pho).
You always know from the smell of a bowl of bun bo hue whether it’s going to be good or not. The first scent that should hit your nostrils absolutely needs to be lemongrass with a mix of long-cooked meatiness; if you don’t smell lemongrass, then it is definitely game over. And sadly, so many of the bun bo hues I have had over the years have been like this. They want to be bun bo hue, but they simply fail.
This morning, Chris and I went to Springvale, a Melbourne suburb with a large Vietnamese population, for some filming as well as to get a quick bite to eat before going over to his aunt and uncle’s house. We randomly passed a place called Nam Giao Bun Bo Hue, which looked promising from the outside. Despite walking along this street each time we have visited over the last seven years, I’d never really noticed this spot until Chris pointed it out to me this time and suggested we go in. I realized after doing some reading afterwards that they had remodeled recently and also reopened. We popped in to share a bowl of bun bo hue and a Vietnamese iced coffee, and as soon as we walked in, a strong, pungent smell of lemongrass and bone broth hit me, and I knew that this bowl of noodle soup had to be promising. They took great care to put together a bowl with all the ideal ingredients and even placed each item in carefully (I knew this because when I went to use the bathroom behind the kitchen, I watched as workers in the kitchen were arranging bowls to serve); the staff was extremely friendly, much more than the average Vietnamese spot back in New York or San Francisco. They even checked to make sure that we really wanted “everything,” as in the pork hock and the cubed blood. Yes, I confirmed, we wanted everything.
The first spoonful of broth until the very last was incredible: this was likely one of the top two best bowls of bun bo hue I had ever had, with the other one being (funnily enough) in St. Louis, Missouri. Honestly, even the bowl we had in Saigon was not that great this past January when we were in Vietnam (unfortunately, we never spent enough time in Hue to have a proper meal outside of our day tour from Danang there to try it in its founding city). Here, the broth had a strong, unmistakable lemongrass flavor, a brilliant spiciness that was just enough (I added some extra Thai chilies to make it even more potent), and all the meat components were delicious, tender, and well executed. And the pork blood, as I had discovered three years ago, also in Springvale, was smooth, creamy, and actually pleasurable to eat. I really did not want this bowl of bun bo hue to end. Chris even remarked how much I was obsessed with this broth. I never do this even with the best chicken or beef pho.
Pho ga and pho bo (chicken pho and beef pho) are delicious and mainstream now, but they really need to move over and give bun bo hue the real spotlight to shine. When bun bo hue has become mainstream in western countries like the U.S., that’s when I will really know that people have gotten over their racist, xenophobic tendencies (well, at least towards southeast Asians) and have embraced people of other cultures with different foods.