A Seattleite craving soup, if you’ll forgive the redundancy, is probably never more than a half-mile from the nearest bowl of pho. When Voracious two years ago indexed King County’s pho joints, we came up with nearly 200 restaurants which claim the dish as a house specialty.
That’s a big number, especially when compared to the number of local restaurants focusing on the central Vietnamese noodle soup, bun bo Hue. While the dish is on the menu at dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, it still doesn’t have the cachet of its milder distant cousin.
But a new International District restaurant is banking on eaters broadening their soup horizons. Bun – named for the thick rice noodles that star in bun bo Hue, cold salads and fresh spring rolls – this Monday opened on Seventh Avenue South.
Bun serves pho, but flat rice noodles are bit players at this round noodle powerhouse. There are seven bun-based soups on the menu, including soups gussied up with anchovies, duck, coconut milk and escargot (that’s four different preparations, if you’re keeping count.)
“(Bun bo hoe) is often subsidiary to the more popular pho,” critic Jonathan Gold lamented back in 2011. “Bun bo hue just doesn’t have the right PR team.”
Devotees of bun bo hue claim it’s misleading to even liken the dish to pho, since all the soups have in common are beef, bean sprouts, chiles, onions and limes. In an explanatory 2008 post, blogger Wandering Chopsticks wrote:
“Different origins, different spices, different stock, different meats, different flavoring agents, different noodles, different herbs, different other vegetation, different dipping sauces? So tell me again how bun bo Hue is “like pho”? Or “spicy pho”? Or “pho gone wild”? Let me simplify by using Italian food as an analogy. If I were to describe fettucine alfredo to you and said it’s “like spaghetti.” Except, you know, fettucine alfredo has different noodles, different sauces, different meats, different flavors entirely.”
What newcomers to bun bo hue are bound to notice are the spices and assorted pig parts in their bowls. Bun bo hue leans heavily on lemongrass and shrimp paste, and derives its intriguingly deep color from chocolate-brown slabs of pork blood pudding. There’s usually a beef shank and pig’s knuckle bobbing about in the broth, too.
It’s not a delicate dish, but bun bo hue has a dynamic complexity that’s missing from a harmonious pho. Switching from pho to bun bo hue is like switching the channel from PBS to MTV: It’s a short-attention span soup.
The bun bo hue I sampled at Bun wasn’t yet rave-ready. The broth was greasy, the noodles were bland and the dish didn’t have the expected squeal that comes from a generous use of hog offal. But should you find yourself in the mood for bun bo hue, it’s hard to beat the version served at Hoang Lan in Rainier Valley. It’s a testament to the superlative porky spice of the broth that a recent visit occasioned my discovery of Tide To Go in handy “stain eraser” form. I’m not light railing to Othello again without it.