This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

A couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published a story about how 1.5- and second-generation Vietnamese were modernizing Little Saigon's restaurant scene by introducing friendly customer service, better-quality food, and higher prices. Reporter My-Thuan Tran wasn't particularly generous to the hundreds of restaurants that make Little Saigon one of the country's great ethnic enclaves, dismissing them as “grungy, low-tech, basic eateries that were turn-offs to some diners.” Chula: and what's wrong with that? Sleeker nouveau Viet chow houses like Quan Hop, Brodard Chateau, and S Fine Dining are all excellent, yes, but nothing beats delicious, cheap food—damn the service, the atmosphere, the bloody scene. Give me the dives—give me BUN BO HUE SO 1.

Here is Tran's nightmare: a cramped, loud space that reeks of fish sauce and usually blasts the overwrought Paris by Night musical productions that make Bollywood seem as modest as a Quaker meeting house. Someone will hand you a menu and return a minute later, demanding you order. No one checks up on you afterward, and you must approach the register to pay your bill. Horror of horrors! Prissy types expecting the Ritz-Carlton can go to . . . well, the Ritz-Carlton; you're here for the rude, wonderful, eponymous bún bò Hue, central Vietnam's famed soup.

Pho was long-ago assimilated into the Orange County palate, but bún bò Hue still isn't quite there. Whereas pho is gentle and savory, bún bò Hue is a visual, olfactory and palatal smack: brick-red, usually bobbing with cubes of congealed pork blood, and with enough lemongrass and chile to (insert tasteless napalm joke here). You decide how many bitter herbs and how much chile oil and fermented shrimp paste to add, but the traditional way demands you put enough in to make the bún bò Hue radiate.

County Vietnamese consistently mention Bún Bò Hue So 1 as one of Little Saigon's top-five restaurants for its soup, and the results don't disappoint. Cooks prepare 10 versions, from abattoir-like bowls stuffed with skin-on pork hocks, the aforementioned pork-blood cubes and other offal bits to a vegetarian version containing only rice noodles and bean sprouts. The happy medium is one with sliced beef and delicious pork sausage: meaty, zesty, everything that's great and wonderful about eating. Add a large lemonade and a big cup of mung beans doused with coconut milk, and your wallet is $8 lighter—roughly the cost of one of the cheaper entrées at Tran's much-ballyhooed upscale Little Saigon places. The choice is yours.

BUN BO HUE SO 1, 15450 BROOKHURST ST., WESTMINSTER, (714) 531-4475.

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