Welcome to Vietnam Foodie. It’s a new monthly series intended to highlight food throughout the country that’s yet to make the mainstream circuit. First up, Bun Bo Ganh, famous for the popular beef noodle soup born in Hue.
The last supper included an interesting observation. My cousin noted that moving to Vietnam would mean an unlimited supply of pho. I smiled in agreement. But I was looking forward to trying a lot of dishes I did not know. Bun bo Hue was one of them. And you can find it at Bun Bo Ganh.
The first time I had beef noodle soup was in Dalat. And now that I live in Saigon, Bun Bo Ganh is one of my favorite places to eat this delicious dish.
Bun bo? What the pho?
While pho has become a household name all over the world, a tastier option sits idle under the international radar.
Bun bo Hue, or bun bo, is a beef noodle soup with origins from Central Vietnam. In fact, a couple of its main ingredients and its birthplace combine to form its name. Bun is the Vietnamese word for noodles. Bo is beef. And Hue is the city that first created this delightful dish.
Some people think it’s the best of the Vietnamese noodle dishes. I’m partial to cao lau.
The name suggests that the soup is exclusively beefy. What we didn’t see coming was that pork is actually cast as the bowl’s main protein. Furthermore, pork also contributes to the bun bo broth.
Bun bo earns a lot of love for its balance of spicy, salty and sweet, which creates the ultimate umami flavor. The quintessential Vietnamese touch of herbs, banana flowers, morning glory and lemongrass help achieve this unique flavor.
To make your bowl truly authentic, you need a couple of chunks of coagulated pork blood. In my experience, as a foreigner, you must ask for this ingredient, otherwise they might not include it in your soup. (Yes, the word has spread about picky westerners.)
Unlike the flat noodles of pho, bun bo is served with vermicelli noodles which take on a thicker, cylindrical form. Bun bo is particularly popular for breakfast, but you know, eat it whenever you’re hungry.
Why do we like Bun Bo Ganh?
For a few reasons.
First of all, the location, along a busy road in District 3, is close to the city center. This makes it easy for you to get your fix. Probably best to get there by 11:30, though. The restaurant is packed.
Second, we loved who was there eating. I’m talking about locals. Other than a few backpackers who seemed to have stumbled upon the place, we were the only westerners there. And the Vietnamese enjoying their lunches were a nice mix: some formally dressed, others very casual. This tells me the food transcends social classes.
Finally, there’s an English menu. That means the restaurants owners are prepared for the foreigners who find them.
What to order
Bun bo Hue! What else would you order? No, just kidding. There are a lot of Vietnamese favorites here, but let’s start with the one that’s part of the establishment’s name.
At Bun Bo Ganh, visitors can choose to alter their bowl and select which meats they want: beef, pork, shrimp balls, crab balls or mixed.
My friend who came with me got the mi quang. It’s another popular noodle dish from Central Vietnam, this one from Danang. The noodles are flatter and there’s no beef broth, just pork and chicken broth. A lot of the veggies are the same, though, as the ones used with bun bo Hue.
He said he was quite satisfied with it.
You can have dessert too, if you have a sweet tooth. The menu has different kinds of che, a popular local dessert that typically consists of fruit, mung beans and coconut cream. I rarely get anything after my main course, and I don’t like Vietnamese desserts — the mix of ingredients does not tickle my taste buds — but maybe you might want to eat some.
Don’t let some of the fancy clientele fool you. This is the definition of casual dining. Not the kind of place you’d drag out a meal, but good for a quick lunch with colleagues.
That said, the easy access and foreigner-friendly menus make it suitable for the holiday-maker, backpacker or those still easing their way toward street food.
Would Hue approve?
Who knows? That’s a tough litmus test. I mean, have you ever heard an Italian say, “Our pizza back home is great, but that place in Argentina was even better!”
So maybe this has happened before. Not sure there are any witnesses, though.
Here’s my humble opinion: I have been to Hue twice and I enjoyed my bowl at Bo Bun Ganh as much as I liked the beef noodle soup I ate at two restaurants in the Imperial City. And I have quite a diverse palate.
But don’t take my word for it. Go find out for yourself!
Vietnam Foodie rating: 4.2/5