Hue Oi: Boiling Down to the Basics
During my third visit to Hue Oi, the block around Fountain Valley's Mile Square Park experienced a blackout. Stoplights weren't functioning. The traffic on Brookhurst was a snarled mess even by Little Saigon standards. But Hue Oi forged on without electricity. Customers kept arriving, the noodle soups still came out steaming, the two-toned glasses of cafe su dua still needed to be stirred slowly to distribute the strong coffee and ice into the thick sludge of the sweetened condensed milk.
One of Little Saigon's newer restaurants, Hue Oi has spent about a month in this tree-shaded lot that counts the great vegetarian eatery Au Lac as tenant. But if Hue Oi's customers seem to already be familiar with the lay of the land and know exactly what to order, power or no power, it's because the restaurant actually moved here from its original location in Garden Grove. That first iteration debuted two years ago and quickly cemented its reputation as one among a short list of respected Hue cuisine specialists—including Quan Hy and Ngu Binh—that, at the very least, serves those delicate, button-cute shots of steamed rice-flour batter sprinkled with minced shrimp, fried onion and scallions called bánh bèo, as well as bún bò hue, the signature noodle soup of the region.
Hue Oi's bún bò hue immediately distinguishes itself as one of the most advanced bowls of soup in Little Saigon. It contains not only the customary cubes of pork-blood cake, slices of tender, braised beef shank and morsels of steamed pork mousse, but also a bone-in, skin-on, fat-rimmed cross-section of pork leg that resembles a CT scan of, well, a pork leg. But if you happen to appear even the slightest bit squeamish, the waiter will ask you if you wouldn't rather leave it out. Or perhaps you'd prefer the pho (which, by the way, is just as wonderful)? Order both—or save one for the next visit.
Yes, ordering pho at a Hue-style joint is superfluous, just as asking for breakfast tacos at a Oaxacan dive. But the pho here doesn't begin with noodles clumped or stuck to the bottom, as in lesser joints; rather, they arrive already animated, awakened by a pour of scalding broth. The pho dac biet, the house-special bowl, has it all: the slipperiness of jellied tendon, the falling-apart flaps of brisket, the goose-pimpled fingers of tripe, the rubbery bounce of a quartered Vietnamese meatball and at least two other representations of cattle in the broth.
There are other noodle dishes besides the bún bò hue and the pho. In the mi quang, a tangle of yellow noodles is served dry with fistfuls of pork and chicken meat, crushed peanuts, shreds of banana blossom and sesame crackers, as well as a bowl of concentrated red broth that you pour onto and mix into the noodles as though it were marinara. For the banh canh tom cua, linguine-thick tapioca noodles chew with the resiliency of rubber bands, the strands slowly thickening the crab meat-festooned broth that's already as hearty as a chowder.
Of course, you can't leave without trying the bánh bèo, offered a dozen per order, each one topped with a pork rind. They're more delicate than Ngu Binh's. Before you take a teaspoon to scoop out the wiggly disc, a douse or two from the bowl of fish sauce is required. You will also need at least a sliver of Thai bird chile, which only heightens the experience. Treat the banh nam the same way. Steamed rice-flour paste is smeared into flat, banana-leaf envelopes and sprinkled with minced shrimp meat to form what would result if a dim sum rice-noodle roll were crossbred with a tamale. You can get the banh nam as a stand-alone order or as a sampler with banh loc ca, dumplings stuffed with pork and shell-on shrimp, all encased in translucent tapioca skin; you'll gnaw on it as though it were a persistent Gummy Bear.
Hue Oi does almost everything well. But it was during the blackout the place showed what makes restaurants such as this great. It demonstrated that even if everything that makes it modern and chic were taken away (the striking purple-cushioned seats, the fashionable dangly lights), all it really needs is a lovingly prepared vat of boiling broth, good meat and noodles to bring in devotees. And as I sat in the dark near the back of the restaurant, I witnessed this truism in action. The restaurant was nearly full. Everyone was in silhouette, hunched over their bowls, their heads backlit by the sunlight flooding in through the windows, noodles streaming from their mouths, curls of white steam billowing around them.
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