Sure, pho restaurants are opening up left and right across the Bayou City, but Asiatown’s current craze is for a deeper, heartier, more robust soup known as bun bo Hue (pronounced “boon-baw-hway”). A spicy beef noodle soup from the Imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam, the dish is among the most difficult of the Vietnamese soups to master. It is also one of the most addictive. People who try it fall in love with the full-bodied beefy lemongrass flavor, the thick, udon-like noodles, and the savory beef and pork hock toppings, which is why restaurants are tripping over themselves to offer their own version.
The first of the bun bo Hue–only restaurants to open in Houston years ago, this hole-in-the-wall has become so popular, it’s spawned three other locations around town. Those in the know prefer the original, where the broth is still considered one of the truest examples in town. Topped with slices of tender bap bo (beef shank), cha Hue (a Hue-style bologna), huyet (congealed blood cubes), and gio heo (pork hock), the soup comes with shredded cabbage, banana blossoms, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), and lime. There is no menu, because this is the only dish the restaurant serves. Just specify whether you want a large or small bowl.
In 2016, Quoc Anh Nguyen and his wife, Rose Huynh, opened this restaurant, naming it after their sons, Viet and Son. He mans the kitchen; she oversees the front of the house. Though the restaurant sells other dishes, bun bo Hue is the star. “I try to make it as close to homemade as possible,” says Nguyen of his soup, a beef and bone broth simmered for 18 hours, per the recipe passed down from his mother, a native of Hue. Patrons customize their bowl’s spice level and toppings, choosing from beef shank, well-done flank, fatty brisket, tendon, Hue-style bologna, pork hock, and blood cubes. “I don’t add a lot of MSG and flavorings,” says Nguyen. “My family eats here, so I am serving you the same food I would serve them.”
Never mind the name: The bun bo Hue at this newcomer—founded by three friends, Yen Lang, Kenny Pham, and Sonny Pham—is a serious contender for best in the city. Lang, who previously owned a Vietnamese restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, interprets the dish so strictly, his partners affectionately call him a soup nazi. The broth base, made from purified water and beef bone simmered for 20-plus hours, is cooked with lemongrass and myriad spices to yield a clear yet richly flavored, clean-tasting broth. Toppings of sliced beef shank, peppery Hue bologna, and tender, boneless pork hock are generous, and the accompanying veggies are incredibly fresh. What takes this version over the top, though, is the restaurant’s secret sate sauce, made fresh from lemongrass, habanero chiles, and a proprietary spice blend.
Debuting in January of this year, the restaurant—from the family behind Cajun Kitchen and Pho Ga Dong Nai down the street—aims to offer a healthier, less oily version of bun bo Hue. “The broth is purely beef bones and beef shank that is simmered for 14 hours in purified water,” says family rep John Nguyen, adding that the pork hocks are cooked separately so that customers who don’t eat pork can still enjoy the dish. Order the special dac biet version, and get a side dish of rare filet mignon as an added topping.
Making its debut last year, this cute, contemporary spot is the first restaurant for 28-year-old co-owners Ha Nguyen and McKenzie Nguyen, childhood friends from Beaumont, where Ha’s parents owned a Vietnamese restaurant. Ha learned the art of bun bo Hue from her mother, who tweaked the recipe to make it her own. “Most people use beef shank in their bun bo,” says Ha, “but we use beef brisket instead.” While other spots allow guests to add spice to taste, the version here arrives already spiced. The place also offers two Challenge bowls—one ridiculously huge, the other absurdly spicy. Finish either, and get the meal itself, plus a T-shirt, for free.