Even if you’re a Vietnamese-food neophyte, you’re likely familiar with pho, bánh mì and bún. They are the primary colors of the Vietnamese-cuisine visible spectrum. As pizza, spaghetti and lasagna is to Italian food, the triumvirate is the culture’s food ambassador, and it’s slowly being woven into the fabric of mainstream America. This is the reason those dishes are on the menu of almost every generic Vietnamese restaurant outside of Little Saigon such as Sawleaf. But are you aware that some restaurants in the Vietnamese enclave have already moved on to new iterations of pho, bánh mì and bún? Read on to discover the next phase of evolution of these dishes you thought you knew.
A PHO WITHOUT BROTH
Is it too hot outside for pho? Grandpa’s Kitchen—Dry Noodles 168 has the answer in its signature dish. While the plate is eponymously titled “Grandpa’s dry noodles,” the proper name is pho kho, which simply translates to “dry pho.” It’s a specialty of Pleiku, a city in Vietnam’s central highland region—and, of course, it’s the most popular street food in town. In the bowl, you see the same kind of rice noodles you’re used to seeing, except these are sprinkled with pork cracklings as croutons and torn pieces of green leaf lettuce for color. And just as in your last bowl of pho, you’ll find toppings of sliced flank steak and brisket. But noticeably absent is the steaming lake of soup that drowns them all. Instead, the noodles are dressed in a savory sauce that coats the strands as though they’re Italian pasta. There’s still some hot broth to be had; it’s served in a separate bowl with two tiny beef meatballs that bob in the liquid like buoys. You approach the dish the same way as other phos: slurp the noodles, sip the soup, and squeeze on the Sriracha to your heart’s content. It’s just that here you have full control of when and how. Put it this way: It’s the equivalent to eating a French dip with the au jus on the side versus one in which the sandwich is already pre-soaked—it makes all the difference. 14208 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 462-6259.
A BÁNH MÌ THAT ISN’T A SANDWICH
Despite being called a bánh mì, the bánh mì xíu mai at Bao-N-Baguette isn’t a sandwich. Unlike what you see at Lee’s Sandwiches or Bánh Mì Che Cali, this bánh mì is served in two parts. The first is a bowl containing the xíu mai, a single, gigantic meatball swimming in a bright sauce made of crushed tomatoes garnished with cilantro sprigs, shaved scallions and sliced jalapeños. And inside the center, there’s literally an Easter egg in the form of a boiled quail egg. The second component is the bread—a helium-light baguette with a crackly crust and moist white crumb. You can conceivably pry the hoagie open and tuck the meat inside to make yourself a meatball sub, but the more common thing to do is tear the bread piece by piece and eat it in concert with that soft, pudding-like pork orb. Much like how it’s used for bo kho (Vietnamese beef stew), this French-style baguette is designed for such a purpose. And when you taste the xíu mai independent of the bread, you find out how much more comforting this meatball is compared to those covered in marinara or served in brown gravy by a certain Swedish furniture manufacturer. 16039 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 617-5611; www.baonbaguette.com.
A BÚN THAT CHALLENGES YOUR OLFACTORY SENSES
Quan Bún Co Giao Thao specializes in all things bún. But there’s a special dish that’s reserved for the hardcore. It’s called bún dau mam tôm, and for anyone not from Hanoi, it’s something of an acquired taste. It involves mam tôm, fermented shrimp paste that’s best described as Vegemite with B.O. And in this dish—unlike others that involve the malodorous substance—the mam tôm is not in the background; it’s the star. After it’s diluted with lime juice, you use it as a dipping sauce for the cool rice noodles, the thin slices of boiled pork, the freshly fried tofu cubes, the cucumbers and the herbs. The first taste is jarring. It’s not a subtle flavor; it’s salty, pungent and sharp. Think of the briniest canned anchovy and multiply it by 10. Then the smell hits you: the unmistakable stench of seafood at some stage of decomposition. Yet the more you consume, the more addictive the dish becomes. It’s all because of that stinky stuff. In fact, all the other ingredients become blank canvases onto which the umami-rich mam tôm is the paint. It should be noted that the dish has been a staple of other Little Saigon restaurants for years. But to this day, even at those restaurants, bún dau mam tôm still hides in plain sight, waiting to be discovered by those ready to go beyond bún and its usual fish-sauce dip, which will seem as tame as Heinz ketchup by comparison. 10022 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 595-9917.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.