There's no question: Houston knows and loves its phở. And in its short life, Houstonia has done its best to keep up with demand. From spicy bún bò Huế to shrimp-filled hủ tiếu to simple, chicken-based phở gá, we've tried to cover the gamut of Little Saigon's hot, liquid riches.
In that tradition, meet your new favorite fish soup, bún chả cá. As far as we can figure, it's served at only one place in Houston, specialist Bún Chả Cá Đà Nẵng. We will now likely become regulars.
Not including drinks and a 99-cent coconut pudding (we are sold on the strangely milky flavor of the basil-seed-filled artichoke-pandan iced tea), there are only nine items on Bún Chả Cá Đà Nẵng's menu. Most are soups, all are centered around catfish cakes. Though the toothsome, floppy texture mimics that of Japanese fish cakes, the Vietnamese version is peppery and unusually full-flavored, more American breakfast sausage than austere, pink-rimmed kamaboko.
The section of the menu labeled "fish sides" is more appealing than the name suggests. Really, it's a collection of different fish cakes, all made in-house daily, but the rock star of the bunch is the chả cá trứng cút. As you can see, it's basically a Scotch egg, with a hard-boiled quail egg at the center, enrobed in a dense, chewy layer of heavily peppered catfish. The flavor is so rich, it's difficult to believe there's no pork in the mix. A soy-based dipping sauce on the side adds some salt, but not much else—the little balls of love are compelling enough on their own.
In some ways, bún chả cá itself is the best possible result of a marriage between phở gá and bún bò Huế. Sweet, long-cooked chicken broth serves as the base, with a slightly rancorous edge of funk owing to the addition of fish paste. Chile oil means a burn on the eater's lips with each bite. An adorable fish-shaped plate comes on the side with sprouts, a single chile, mint and lettuce ready to be added. Most important are a squeeze of lime and an overflowing spoonful of the chile-garlic paste that sits on the table along with Sriracha and shrimp sauce.
But much of the fun of eating the soup is the motley cast of foods already in the mix: There are three types of fish cakes, all varying in thickness and shape. There is a single cube of kabocha squash. There are tomatoes, bamboo and big leaves of cabbage, all of which absorb the spice of the broth. And all around, it's a pleasure to eat.
It would be a pity that there's only one place to find bún chả cá in Houston if that place weren't doing such a darn good job. But it is, and we're richer for it.