There’s one sure way to tell when any type of “ethnic” food has become mainstream in the United States: It occurs the moment the cognoscenti start differentiating between the cuisines of the country’s various regions. With Italian food, those distinctions have existed for decades. Popular “red sauce” Italian has its roots in immigrant traditions from Sicily and southern Italy, while northern Italian fans might celebrate risotto and osso bucco. The same has happened more recently with Chinese restaurants branching out beyond familiar Cantonese classics to offers specialties from Shanghai and the rest of that vast country.
|view from the food court|
Now, the same trend is occurring with Vietnamese food, and it’s not just about the classic political distinction between north and south that divided the country during two long decades of conflict. Almost everyone knows that Hanoi is associated with pho, the celebrated soup of beef and thin rice noodles, and Saigon is generally thought to have some of the world’s best street food. What about the middle of the country, though? For a vertically elongated nation like Vietnam, the middle is Hue, an historic former capital of the country located roughly at the midpoint of its north-south axis.
|bahn canh cua (spicy crab soup)|
Hue Gourmet is an obviously-named restaurant serving that region’s own specialties. It’s one of many recent additions to the food court at Mekong Plaza, a short walk from the Sycamore / Main light rail station in west Mesa. As with its neighbors at the casual north end of the shopping center, it’s an informal little order-at-the-counter place. The menu is written on whiteboards over the counter and is limited to fewer than two dozen items. The seating at colorful tables is shared with neighboring restaurants. Be patient when waiting at the counter. Often, the staff are in back cooking but will come out to the front as soon as they are able.
|cha cio tom (shrimp egg roll)|
It appears that almost all of Hue Gourmet’s customers order a big steaming bowl of bun bo hue, the restaurant’s signature dish. This is not pho, but instead a meaty soup made with thicker, more cylindrical noodles combined with sliced beef, slivers of “pork loaf” (sold in rolls at the counter), and pork knuckle for extra flavor. Cubes of congealed pork blood sometimes makes an appearance in the bowl, but none were evident here. The table salad served with the soup includes herbs, shredded cabbage, and bean sprouts. For added flavor, there’s one container of chili oil and another of shrimp paste for a taste full of salt and unami.
|bun bo hue|
Although the City of Hue is sometimes known for its vegetarian traditions, the restaurant Hue Gourmet is all about meat. In fact, a lot of its food resembles a southeast Asian version of charcuterie. The pork skewers come wrapped in foil and look and taste like something halfway between a hot dog and a cylinder of pate. There’s even a version that adds minced escargot to the dish. Another charcuterie option with a French colonial influence is the patechaud, in which puff pastry encases a pork filling. All the rich pork-based dishes are a departure from the lean cuts of beef typically associated with pho.
Slightly less meaty but equally tasty are appetizers made of flat, thick rice noodles. Banh beo are essentially rice coins topped with shrimp flakes and served with a fish oil sauce sprinkled with sliced chilies. Bahn nam are larger dumplings of rectangular shape steamed in banana leaves. Staff are happy to show customers how to unwrap the leaves, anoint the dumplings with sauce, and then slice each one into manageable pieces. While this dish has ground shrimp inside, another version with clear dumplings has pork and whole shrimp with the tails still on. All these menu items come several to an order, making them ideal dishes to share as appetizers.
There’s no liquor license at Hue Gourmet, and most drinks come from the soda fountain. For something made on site, try the limeade. It’s tangy, refreshing, and copious in its 32-ounce cup. There’s no dessert on the menu, so stroll over to the nearby frozen yogurt shop iTwist if there’s room after the meal. As an outpost representing Vietnamese regional dishes now gaining some local exposure, Hue Gourmet doesn’t water down its food for American tastes and may not be suitable for picky eaters. On the other hand, it’s a new adventure in southeast Asian cuisine for anyone tired of pho, banh mi, and other dishes that have now become part of the mainstream.
66 S. Dobson Rd., Mesa AZ 85202