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May 23, 2012

Hue Gourmet

Mì Quảng Dominic Armato

This one's at least a year overdue.

I first fell into Hue Gourmet back in October of 2010, I believe shortly after they'd opened. I tried a couple of things, rather enjoyed them, and resolved to go back to work my way through the menu. Then I became distracted by something or other (a sudden move necessitated by a landlord foreclosure, probably) and it wasn't until months later, while perusing PHX Rail Food, that I fell upon David Bickford's writeup of the place, and returned with renewed vigor. I've... um... been there a lot since.

It's endlessly frustrating to me that Vietnamese cuisine is always reduced to pho. I love pho. Who doesn't love pho? But come on. There's a whole nation's worth of cuisine out there, so much of which is barely represented at most of the city's Vietnamese restaurants. What's especially compelling about Hue Gourmet -- aside from the fact that an unusual amount of care goes into the food -- is that it specializes in the cuisine of Hue, a city in central Vietnam, the foods of which are particularly difficult to come by around these parts. The reason it receives so little attention, I think, is that it's a food court stand, tucked away in the back of Mekong Plaza. Lan, an engineer in a previous life who changed careers to follow her passion, runs the show along with a small army of cooks who are as busy with large catering orders as they are with bowls of rice and noodles for the food court crowd. You place your order at a busy counter and sit at a table in a cavernous mall under fluorescent light. Serving pieces are mismatched and you're as likely to get plastic utensils as metal ones. Food kind of comes out when it's ready, sometimes quickly, sometimes not as quickly, and don't expect anything to be timed or coursed out. But humble surroundings can be deceptive. Hue Gourmet has become my favorite Vietnamese joint in town.

Bánh BèoDominic Armato

Bánh Bèo are closely identified with Hue, little disc-shaped rice cake a couple of inches across, topped with ground dried shrimp, fried pork skin and scallion. They can be served laid out on a platter, but I prefer them like this, steamed in little individual cups, dimpled in the center and ready to receive a splash of nước chấm -- seasoned fish sauce -- before you scoop them into your mouth. The rice cake has a pleasantly gelatinous texture and mellow flavor, offset by the salty shrimp, tart sauce and crunch from the fried pork skin that's a perfect example of Lan's attention to detail. It's easy to buy bagged chicharrones and crumble them over the top, and the majority of restaurants do. Most folks won't even know the difference. But for Lan, the texture isn't quite right. So she dices pork skin and fries up tiny 4mm cubes, devoting a significant amount of time to such a small detail. And if the value of this attention isn't immediately evident, step around the corner to Com Tam Thuan Kieu, also in Mekong Plaza, and order the same dish. The difference is stark even to the most inexperienced when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine.

Bánh KhọtDominic Armato

More a dish of South-Central Vietnam than Hue, Bánh Khọt are nonetheless a delicious dish and a nice change of pace from the ubiquitous pancakes that are found at every pho joint. Their composition is similar to Bánh Xèo, a rice flour batter seasoned with turmeric and sometimes enriched with coconut milk, shrimp within, shredded mint atop. But instead of being cooked flat and folded over, these little discs are fried in dimpled cast iron pans, so that the underside and edges gets brown and crispy while the center maintains a spongy, moist texture. I love that the crispness is a given, I love the textural contrast, and I love the additional richness afforded by the coconut milk. Wrapped in lettuce with some fresh herbs and dipped in fish sauce, these little fellows are delightful, and I have a hard time ordering Bánh Xèo when they're available.

Nem Chua Huế, Wrapped......and UnwrappedDominic Armato

Nem Chua is fairly easy to find, usually cut into small lumps the size of a large sugar cube, or short cylinders tied up in plastic wrap. And though they're not always available at Hue Gourmet, I prefer them as they're made here, squat little pyramids wrapped in banana leaves. Nem Chua is about as close as most will want to get to consuming raw pork (probably closer), but I've always adored these little cured meats. Ground pork is mixed with slivered pork skin, sugar, garlic, chiles and pepper and treated with curing salts before being allowed to rest for 2-3 days. The result is both sour and fiery, like a tender salami that maintains much of the character of the raw meat of which it's composed. The slivered skin plays almost like vermicelli noodles, adding a compelling texture as well as more porcine flavor, and this version, cured in banana leaves, picks up a hint of an almost floral scent. I realize that these aren't everybody's cup of tea. But as a tiny taste of explosive flavor, I always find them hard to pass up when they're available.

Bún Bò HuếDominic Armato

Two dishes that are all but synonymous with Hue are Bún Bò Huế and Cơm Hến, and while the former is easy to find in Vietnamese restaurants around the city, I've yet to have one as spicy, deep and intoxicating as Hue Gourmet's. Want to get my hackles up? Be the 7,382,411th person to refer to this as "spicy pho." It's not even beef. At least not primarily (though a pork/beef mix isn't uncommon). It's a fiery pork broth, heavy with lemongrass, onions and garlic, made ruddy with annatto and featuring all kinds of funky meats that send squeamish Westerners packing. The noodles are thicker -- perhaps 2.5mm -- and round, and they're hidden underneath slices of pork pate, beef tendon, chunks of pig's trotters and cubes of congealed pork blood. The final step -- mandatory in my book -- is mixing in a small dab of fermented shrimp paste, served on the side, which rounds it out and gives it even more complexity and a hit of salinity. The flavor is immense and deep and punctuated with fragrant aromatics all at once, and I always encourage those who fear the funk to simply work around the scary chunks and focus on the noodles and broth. This is a beautiful soup, and you may find yourself experimenting with the totality of the bowl's contents sooner than you think.

Cơm HếnDominic Armato

Another Hue specialty, and a wonderfully unique dish, is Cơm Hến, listed on the menu as "clam rice," an apt descriptor. It's served as a kind of dry chaotic mess, a small pile of broken steamed rice buried under a mix of thin vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts, baby clams, some kind of sesame brittle, shredded herbs, bean sprouts, slivered green apple (a substitute for starfruit, which Lan has trouble getting a hold of) and large sesame crackers, all served next to a small bowl of hot, salty clam broth. You break up the crackers, mix everything up, and give it a splash of the broth -- not to make a soup, but just to kind of moisten the rice, tie all of the elements together and add some necessary salt. The clam flavor is strong, and it's accentuated by fresh aromatics, nutty undertones and a whole mess of textures that I find fabulously compelling. This is a dish I've never had anywhere else, but now I'm anxious to try.

Another specialty of Central Vietnam, if not Hue specifically, is Mì Quảng (pictured above), which I have yet to find as exciting as the others, but it nonetheless a tasty and interesting change of pace from pho joint Vietnamese. The noodles are egg noodles flavored with turmeric, and served with things like roasted pork, shrimp, chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, hard cooked quail eggs, shredded banana blossom and more, with a small amount of pork broth in the bottom, just enough to moisten everything when you mix it up. It's another chaotic mess that comes together harmoniously, even if it doesn't quite feel as cohesive to me as the Cơm Hến. But this is an exceedingly popular dish in central Vietnam, which tells me I probably need to try it more.

Bún Vịt Xáo Măng Dominic Armato

Leading up the Absurd Value category is the Bún Vịt Xáo Măng, a duck soup that feels like two dishes for the price of one. On the left, a clean, clear and rich duck broth, beautifully balanced and touched with just enough aromatics to bring out the bird's natural flavor, served with thin rice noodles, dried bamboo and fresh herbs. On the right, what seems like an entire quarter of a duck, steamed (I think), chilled, chopped into chunks, and served atop shredded cabbage with more fresh herbs and a vibrant sweet and sour dressing made with an abundance of pureed ginger You have a sip of hot soup. You dunk some chilled duck in the sauce. You put a little duck in the soup. Maybe you add a touch of the ginger dressing to the soup. You go back and forth, duck hitting you from both sides, not overly complicated by a horde of accompaniments, and this whole setup runs six dollars. Absurd.

Bún Riêu CuaDominic Armato

More Southern than Central, but still exceptionally done here, is the first of two crab soups, Bún Riêu Cua. This one's a little more delicate than some of the other offerings (though not so gentle as the duck), a pork and crab broth sweetened with tomato and a touch of rcck sugar. The bowl also features rice noodles, chunks of puffy fried tofu, cubes of pork blood, pieces of roasted pork, and little quenelles of what Lan calls "crab cakes," more like poached crab dumplings made with a little bit of ground pork, intensely flavored and delicately textured, evoking every bit of the crab, not just the meat. It's an assertive but cleanly flavored soup, one that you appreciate more and more the deeper you get, as more of the oils coat your mouth, and more of the crab's natural funk comes out of hiding. With better tomatoes, I think this would be dynamite. But though I'm speculating, that may be a supply issue.

Bánh Canh CuaDominic Armato

One that needs no adjustment to achieve "dynamite" status is the Bánh Canh Cua, a more assertive crab soup that's another specialty of Hue. It doesn't look like much, but like the restaurant itself, that's highly deceptive. Where the Bún Riêu Cua is clean and refined, the Bánh Canh Cua is big and intense, with a viscous consistency, thickened by the flour used to keep the noodles from sticking. The noodles in this dish are hand-cut to order, thick like udon but only a few inches long, made with a mix of rice and tapioca (I think) lending them a translucent appearance, slippery texture and subtly pleasant chew. The broth is big and intense, a little spicy, screaming of crab and garlic, and it's laden with chunks of lump crabmeat, hard cooked quail eggs that almost pop to expose a still-soft center, shrimp that are just barely cooked -- still a touch sticky -- and a sprinkling of fresh mint and scallions and white pepper. A little splash of fish sauce adds a bit of brightness, and it's a joy to dig into. The last time I had this, it was one of the most delicious noodle soups I've had all year. And I've had some pretty freaking outstanding noodle soups this year.

Cuốn Tôm ChuaDominic Armato

In addition to big bowls of noodles and rice and soup, Hue Gourmet does a big catering business, making large volumes of little bites by special order. I recently went with a bunch of friends and piggybacked on a couple of large orders, sampling a number of items that aren't ordinarily available in small quantities (though they do pop up from time to time -- it's work asking). One of them is called Cuốn Tôm Chua, and it's a really unusual shrimp dish. The shrimp are mixed with galangal, chiles, garlic, some sort of flour paste, curing salts and other aromatics -- secret recipe type stuff -- and over time it creates a bold but well-rounded flavor, and softens the shrimp shells to make them completely edible. The shrimp is then mixed with tender meltaway slices of steamed (I think) pork belly, and this is where you step in.

The FixingsWrappedDominic Armato

Anybody who's spent a lot of time in Vietnamese restaurants is familiar with the roll-your-own format, where you dip stiff rice paper into hot water, turning it into the supple wrapper that you fill with your featured item (the shrimp), and things like lettuce leaves, rice noodles and fresh herbs. Mine are always this expertly wrapped. No, sorry, I don't have any other photos to prove it. I don't have to answer your questions.

Bánh Tôm ChiênDominic Armato

What's not to like here? Bánh Tôm Chiên are similar to Bánh Cóng, but featuring an abundance of sweet potato. The bottom, though it's hard to see, is made from a fairly thick batter that develops a light, almost fluffy consistency as it fries, with a predictably crisp exterior. On top is a bird's nest of slivered sweet potato, and whole head and shell-on shrimp, fried hot enough that they become crisp and edible whole. Again, attention to detail, the nước chấm served with these is adjusted to the dish, a little less tart, a little sweeter, They're piping hot, exquisitely textured, and the added complexity from the sweet potatoes make these something I continue to think about. I wish they were a little easier to come by. (Anybody want to place an order with me?)

Bánh Lọc TrầnDominic Armato

When I first asked about the Bánh Lọc Trần, Lan asked, "Are you sure? They're really chewy." And so they are. Made with cassava, these dumplings are dense and glutinous and the result is something of a workout for your jaw. It's not at all unpleasant, but very mildly flavored and not something I'd go back for if not for the burst of flavor waiting inside. When you work your way through that sticky cocoon and hit the center, it all makes sense. You're chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing and BAM, there it is -- a sweet, sticky and boldly seasoned pork paste enrobing and a small whole shrimp, shell-on to provide a little bit of crunch. It's some seriously big flavor lurking within, and the whole thing as a unit works wonderfully well.

I enjoy Hue Gourmet more and more every time I go. And I think they're getting better too, as Lan's minions -- who she says are sometimes too timid to take on the more complicated dishes -- gain more experience and are better-equipped to execute her recipes. Hue Gourmet is a rare treat, particularly in a city like Phoenix. It's an uncommon subset of a fabulous ethnic cuisine, executed with exceptional care by somebody who has a real passion for what she's doing. And it's cheap. Most of these dishes are about $7, give or take. I always get frustrated when places like this that make exceptional food in a humble setting are continually overlooked. There's a lot of great food coming out of that stall. Not to mention a fascinating bit of culinary education. Go. Please. Show that there's an interest in this kind of thing, and with a little luck we'll get more of it.

Hue Gourmet
Mekong Plaza
66 S. Dobson Rd.
Mesa, AZ 85202
Thu - Tue9 AM - 3 PM5 PM - 8:30 PM
Closed Wednesday


Nice. I seem to recall that not too long ago you felt obliged to go visit Orange County, CA for Vietnamese fixes.

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