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Post from jack | around
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bun bo HueWhen I walked in, the eyes of the exclusively Vietnamese clientele alighted upon me briefly with perhaps a tinge of surprise, but then quickly returned to the bowls in front of them. I sat down, the prompt staff asked if I wanted anything to drink, and pointed to the wall when I asked for a menu. There are some guiding rules when it comes to assessing a Vietnamese restaurant, like understanding the service philosophy and knowing what to order. Most Vietnamese restaurants specialize in one thing or another, like pho, with options as to what sort of protein you want. So it’s no surprise that the establishments along the 249 corridor, like Pho Bien Hoa and Pho 45, have come to fill niche roles. Duc Chuong II takes this one step further – they literally have one (1) item on the menu, with a lone picture on the wall: bun bo Hue. In fact, the name of the dish is featured more prominently on the façade than the name of the restaurant itself.

Pho 45 became the sole purveyor of banh mi sandwiches in the area once the alternative across the street, Mama’s Tea House, closed down. Perhaps Mama’s was a “tea house” by original intent, but over time the menu had grown exponentially to include banh mi, com and bun dishes, pho, even calamari, along with their dizzying array of bubble teas and blended drinks. They must have buckled under the weight of such an undertaking because they gradually began paring the menu down and eventually closed. The space lay dormant long enough that I doubt the same owners have relaunched, even though, while certainly modernized, the layout is largely the same at Duc Chuong II, and the bubble teas are back on the menu, albeit in a more focused spectrum.

Duc Chuong IIAnother reason I suspect the owners are different is that bun bo Hue is a Central Vietnamese dish, as opposed to pho, literally meaning beef and vermicelli from the region around the city of Huế. Akin to pho only in that it’s a soup with cuts of meat and noodles, the comparison with bun bo Hue really ends there; the flavors are wildly different. While the broth used for pho is spiced with star anise and clove, the flavors of  bun bo Hue is largely of  lemongrass with hints of fish paste and chili oil, the noodles are thicker and round, and the meaty bits are more adventurous for the tyro than even pho dac biet with its tendon and tripe. At Duc Chuong II all the traditional elements are present: thin slices of steak both lean and fatty, and the Vietnamese white sausage (like boudin blanc in the French style rather than Cajun) was one of my favorite bites, savory, tender, with a mild snap of casing. The pig’s knuckle is a bit unwieldy between a pair of chopsticks even for a practiced hand – dropping the round disk of bone with its sinewy ring resulted in a constellation of bright reddish-orange droplets crying out for attention on my button-down shirt. How to: pick up the knuckle with your chopsticks, cradling it with your soup spoon underneath, then nibble the soft skin and fat off the bone. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get at some of the buttery marrow. The dish also features little cubes of deep maroon, rust-colored cubes of congealed pig’s blood, like firm bites of tofu with that ferrous tang that borders on sweet. The bowl was topped with shoestring onions and cracked black pepper, and many of the vegetal accoutrements are familiar to pho aficionados, like cilantro, mung bean sprouts, lime wedges, but a chiffonade nest of purple cabbage is also commonly served with bun bo Hue.

I ordered a bubble tea off the drink menu as well, though I didn’t really see anything I thought would go particularly well with my soup. I chose an iced Thai tea blend, sweet and creamy with its condensed milk and accented with cinnamon, star anise, perhaps some tamarind, and those delightfully alien little marbles of tapioca at the bottom. I chose it because I thought it was about as close as I could get to the Vietnamese iced coffee I wished was on the menu, which is conspicuous by its absence. Duc Chuong II also serves nuoc mat, a traditional Vietnamese iced tea which would be great in the hot summer months.

In the end, I’ve got another Vietnamese restaurant filling a niche role along 249, and filling it expertly.  I’d put this bun bo Hue up against some of the best in the city, even the Long Point powerhouses. If you like the Central Vietnamese dish, you’d do well to make the trek over to the Tomball Pkwy.


Post from jack | around
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