There are two reasons (at least) why you should arrive at Nha Trang early. The first is because there are only 15 or 16 chairs scattered in various permutations around six or seven tables, so the early bird snags a seat. The second is because Nha Trang makes one pot of bún bò Huế a day, so when the ladle hits the bottom of the pot, you’re SOL. Better luck tomorrow.
Bún bò Huế is what some consider the “other” phở, although this is a bit like characterizing Facebook as the other Myspace: they’re sort of the same, except they’re not at all.
While both phở and bún bò Huế are Vietnamese soups that have a beef broth base, that’s the only space where this Venn diagram overlaps. Bún bò Huế hails from Hue, a distinctly central Vietnamese dish, whereas phở is from the northern region of the country. Unlike the clear broth that is the hallmark of a great bowl of phở, the annatto seeds flavoring the bún bò Huế stock lend the broth a fiery orange-red color reminiscent of Lucy Ricardo’s freshly Henna-rinsed hair. This color hints at this bowl’s personality: a bit aggressive, punchy. The marked presence of lemongrass gives the soup a slightly sour undertone, befitting of its demeanor.
The better bowls of bún bò Huế keep the amount of lemongrass in check, with just enough of the herb to gently perfume the soup. There are a few places in the San Gabriel Valley where the bún bò Huế achieves a balance of flavor (Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa comes to mind), and Nha Trang’s version is a contender for a spot on the best-of list.
Bún bò Huế is the first item on its short, 10 dish menu, and you are warned in advance that it will be spicy. When you order a bowl (assuming there’s some left) for a mere $5.95, a plate of bean sprouts, cilantro, purple cabbage, and a lemon slice will come out first. The tall, steaming hot bowl quickly follows.
The bún bò Huế here is spicy as the menu cautions, but that spiciness relents as the soup cools down. Floating amongst the red sea of broth are thick vermicelli noodles – only a thick noodle would stand up to the bold richness of this broth – and meat. All parts of meat: beef brisket, flank, bones, and maybe a pig’s foot or two (or, as they are known to those this side of Asia: trotters).
And then there’s the pig’s blood. Crimson rectangles of gelatinous, congealed blood raft, and occasionally dock, alongside the other ingredients. If you’re a bit squeamish, you can ask them to omit the blood, or you can close your eyes, taste one, and easily fish out the others if you decide that your squeamishness was warranted.
You can add the bean sprouts and other accoutrements to the soup all at once, or a little bit at a time, or not at all, but whatever you do, you must add a healthy squeeze or two from the lemon. With that little bit of juice, the soup pops, bringing out the flavors hiding beneath the surface of the strong broth.
As mentioned above, Nha Trang is tiny, and there’s probably one or two more chairs than should be there, but then again, communal dining is all the rage, isn’t it? Between the closed quarters, the murmur of chattering amongst the other diners, the occasional clanging from the kitchen, and the dull thumps of chopsticks grazing the bottoms of bowls, the setting is cozy and homey. It’s almost like eating at an above-ground supper club whose matriarch is unfamiliar with the Internets and the emails and the Twitterings, and so she simply asks that you get there at some decent hour if you want to eat. Just like at home.
Bún bò Huế at Nha Trang, $5.95
311 E. Valley Blvd.