Vietnamese soups are perfect for spring.
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY BECKY GRUNEWALD
The cool-kid food bible Lucky Peach recently devoted an entire issue to the Vietnamese soup phở, which was only the second single-dish-themed issue in the magazine’s history (the first being its famously gonzo inaugural issue, devoted to ramen). It’s about time this superlative dish takes its place in the soup pantheon, but a 2016 trip to Vietnam taught me that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Vietnamese soups as good as or (gasp!) even better than phở.
Cố Đô is a bustling café located in the Stockton Boulevard stretch of Little Saigon in Southeastern Sacramento, specializing in the cuisine of Central Vietnam. Cố Đô means old citadel, a landmark in Huế, a mid-coastal city that was the national capital from 1802 to 1945 and is known for both rustic and refined dishes. Cố Đô is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Sacramento, and the menu contains 20 non-phở soups, six of which are described below. Sampling these soups might be a perfect way to make the most of the tail end of our rainy season.
Bún bò Huế
When a restaurant has a neon sign in the window proclaiming one of its dishes is bún bò Huế, as Cố Đô does, you had better try it. This is one of the aforementioned rustic signature dishes of Huế, and the server-described dặc biệt (specialty) of Cố Đô. It’s a forceful, spicy, meaty soup, laced with blood cubes and redolent of lemongrass. Add the julienned cabbage provided with the plate of rau thơm (Vietnamese herbs) to soak up the lip-smackingly savory broth and shred some rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and húng (mint) into the broth to brighten up the flavors.
The dual signatures of bún riêu are a loose, pillowy crab/pork (riêu) mixture and a few pieces of tomato. It also contains rice vermicelli (bún), and at Cố Đô it’s served with firm pork meatballs that taste like a hot dog. It’s worth a try just for the riêu.
Mì quảng heo
Although bún bò Huế is the self-proclaimed dặc biệt at Cố Đô, you will see just as many bowls of mì quảng heo crowding the tables. This bowl of wide, turmeric-colored rice noodles is dotted with flamingo-pink, shell-on shrimp and crowned with a large rice cracker. A small bowl of pork broth is served on the side — pour over to create a shallow, noodle-dominated soup that is addictively delicious and satisfying.
Bún măng vịt
I thought I was taking one for the team when ordering this bamboo-shoot-and-duck soup, simply to add variety to the article, and indeed the duck meat was dry, but the smoky, deeply umami broth was a revelation. A cold sweet-and-tart sauce larded with ginger chunks livened up the sad duck, and this soup is worth ordering for the broth alone.
Hủ tiếu bò kho hoặc mì
If you decode the name of this soup, it reads as beef stew with rice or egg noodles. I didn’t understand what I was ordering because hủ tiếu also can mean a pork and seafood noodle soup. But in this case, it referred to the noodles I chose, and the dish itself was a hearty beef stew — a pleasant surprise, as it turned out. A rich, lemony broth, aromatic with Chinese five spice, yielded luscious chunks of beef shank in every bite. This and the mì quảng are my top two picks.
Cháo is the Vietnamese version of China’s congee — thick rice porridge created by boiling rice for an extended period of time. Cháo lòng is a common dish in some rural regions of Vietnam; it’s an economical comfort dish made with rice porridge and pork offal (intestines, stomach, tongue, etc.). Cố Đô does offer cháo lòng, but pork offal is too challenging for me, so I ordered the version with duck, or, rather, my companion did. Said companion described the bowl as “a delicious land mine of choking hazards” due to the presence of many, many small duck bone shards. Not for children!
Out of the dishes above, mì quảng has emerged as the dish I return for again and again – the combination of judiciously applied mint, slippery wide noodles, crunchy peanuts, and ground pork has become a Saturday afternoon standby. One of the best things about eating phở for breakfast, as is customary in Vietnam, is that it leaves you two more meals in the day to eat more soup!
Becky Grunewald has been writing about food, drink, and culture in Sacramento for 10-plus years for publications that include the Sacramento News & Review and the Sacramento Bee, and served as associate editor for the late, much-missed Midtown Monthly magazine and edible Sacramento. Nothing makes her happier than finding a tucked away banh-mi spot with an exceptional pork pâté offering, or a deeply savory pozole made in a South Sac strip mall — except sharing them with readers.
6665 Stockton Blvd., Ste. 10 • 916-427-8305 • Find Cố Đô Restaurant Vietnamese Cuisine on Facebook
Open 9 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. Mon. – Sun.