Bun Bo Hue Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup

There's so much more to explore and understand about Vietnamese cuisine than banh mi and pho. The regional differences in the north, central and southern regions of Vietnam mean that there are foods at which each region excels.

The north is known for being a bit cleaner and saltier. Dishes like bun cha Hanoi, or rice vermicelli with a a side dish of grilled pork and patties in fish sauce, originated in the capital of the north. The south is known for making everything a bit sweeter, like their take on ca kho to, or caramelized catfish in clay pot. And the central region, also known as Hue, is most famous for bun bo Hue, or Hue region beef noodle soup.

Bun bo Hue is a deep-flavored, spicy noodle soup with larger vermicelli noodles, almost like udon. It's made with beef shank, pork hocks, lemongrass and a myriad of other spices which are a total mystery to me. It's a difficult dish to perfect, and I remember what a big deal it was growing up when someone made it well. As a result, whenever I hear of new place that makes decent bun bo Hue, I always make a point of trying it out.

In the far right corner of the Hong Kong City Mall IV, a new restaurant called simply Bun Bo Hue (11209 Bellaire Blvd) quietly opened with little fanfare about two months ago, and when you go there, they'll tell you before you sit down that they only serve two things: bun bo Hue and rice with chicken.

I've gone twice in the last two weeks, trying their $5 small bowl and their $7.50 large bowl, just to see the difference. The soup was consistently good on both occasions and there's little difference between the two sizes other than the fact that the bowl is larger and you get more noodles and meat.

Whether large or small, each bowl comes with a generous helping of sliced beef shank, a Vietnamese bologna-type processed meat called gio, one pork hock, and a side dish of fresh lime, cabbage, banana flower and mint, which you can add to taste. It typically comes with some congealed pork blood cubes as well, but I've never been able to enjoy this, so I asked them to hold it.

The soup is richly flavored with a touch of spice. If it's poorly made, the broth can taste gamey, but here the flavors are correct without that heavy gamey taste. Some places will make it too spicy at the onset, but here, you can add spice to taste. On the first occasion, when I visited at around 2 p.m., I found the broth a bit on the salty side, but with a squeeze of lime and the addition of cabbage and mint, the saltiness was adequately tempered.

On my second visit at around 11:30 a.m., the broth was perfectly seasoned, and this makes sense. Small places like this - barely more than a hole in the wall - make a big pot at the beginning of the day and continue to serve from it until it's gone. Toward the end of the day, the broth will be saltier as the water evaporates away.

The flavors here are solid. With a dearth of good places for really good bun bo Hue in Houston (the best I've had is homemade at someone's house), it's a good place to give authentic Hue region-style food a try. Cash only.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham