Friday, November 20, 2009
I'm just back from lunch at OBAO, serial restaurateur Michael "Bao" Huynh's new noodle bar in Midtown East. I had a bowl of bun bo Hue. Actually, I had a bowl of what they called bun bo Hue.
My only previous exposure to Bao's growing empire was a takeout spicy catfish banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) from a branch of his Baoguette chain (he goes in for cutesy names for his restaurants, like Pho Sure, which if pronounced correctly would be something like "fuh sure," which would be OK in New York, I guess). The sandwich was pretty good, though it didn't hold a candle to Ratha Chau's catfish num pang. In addition to not having tried Pho Sure, I haven't tried Bar Bao, Bia Garden (yes, a beer garden using the Vietnamese word for beer), or Mai House.
When I started working in the East 50s I was worried about finding decent lunch places. Then I discovered the block of 53rd Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues. Four of my favorite lunch places are on that block: Marrakesh for Middle Eastern sandwiches and platters, Tadka for their fabulous vindaloo and shrimp curry, Mantao for Chinese sandwiches, and Ariyoshi for their always enchanting deluxe boxes. OBAO is on the same block, and just opened this week. While some might consider it unfair to judge a restaurant in its first days, I'm of the opinion that a restaurant shouldn't open until it's ready, because people like me are going to write about it. Anyway, my job isn't to be fair, it's to write mildly amusing blog posts.
I was thrilled to see that the restaurant was serving bun bo Hue, because I was really in the mood for a spicy, flavorful noodle soup. Bun bo Hue originated, as the name implies, in the central Vietnamese city of Hue. "Bun" refers to rice noodles and "bo" to beef. The soup is made with a beef stock flavored with lemongrass and chili oil. It almost always comes with a pigfoot and some sliced flank steak, often with a piece of oxtail, and sometimes cubes of congealed pig's blood (I prefer to deny myself the latter, a rare asceticism on my part). The noodle is a round, spaghetti-shaped rice noodle similar to the ones used in Malaysian laksa and Yunnan-style noodle soups.
I had an excellent bun bo Hue in Hue itself. How can you go to Hue and not eat bun bo Hue? Perhaps the best version I've had in North America was at the Montreal branch of Pho Bang NY; the broth pushed the lemongrass limit, just the right side of overpowering, and it was wonderfully sinus-opening spicy, with a delightful greasy red sheen from the chili oil. Respectable versions in New York can be found in Chinatown's Pho Tu Do and Sunset Park's Thanh Da.
When OBAO's bun bo Hue arrived at my table I thought they had brought me the wrong item. It had sliced raw beef ("tai," or eye round steak) and the broth looked just like pho, with only a few dots of orange oil clinging to the side of the bowl, which took close inspection to find. In addition to the beef there were slices of pork leg meat (though the menu promised "pig feet"), and it did include the proper kind of noodle (rather than the flat pho rice noodle), but the broth was pure pho--it took a moment of reflection and a lot of imagination to realize that there was indeed a hint of lemongrass and chili oil, the kind of hint one would expect from the vermouth in a very dry martini. It was evident that what they were passing off as bun bo Hue was just their pho bo slightly altered at the last minute. Nine dollars' worth of pure mediocrity.
If his restaurant names weren't enough evidence, a Michael Huynh interview in the Village Voice convinces me that he's pathologically conceited. Huynh said, "We have pad thai, pad see ew, but we make it better. We've also got Singapore noodles, which I make with black soba; it's better than the original one with vermicelli. We'll have a full liquor license and open kitchen there. It'll be like Republic, but better." Like it's rocket science to be better than Republic, the mediocre, trendy noodle bar on Union Square.
OBAO's bun bo Hue is sort of a pho tai timidly trying to be a faux bun bo Hue for timid American palates . . . but worse!