This is street food at its finest in an unexpected location. Midrise offices and hotels line busy Vo Van Tan in District 3, and in between two nondescript buildings is an open green gate well beyond its prime. This portal to a secret world at #46 reveals metal tables and stools lining a mildewed concrete wall with flourescent lights working their best to fight the nighttime air. This open air food shop called Ba Hoang is simply a rolling food cart with cauldrons of steaming liquids and piles of noodles, shrimp and meats standing guard at the head of the alley.
Can you imagine wandering into a downtown Chicago or Miami alley for a nighttime snack? We’d be liberated of our cash and valuables faster than green grass through a goose. Yeah, I don’t really understand that expression either but a guy I worked with once upon a time used it a lot to indicate something happening fast. So you get my drift here, but in any case living in a city like Saigon where getting mugged while eating in an alley is most unlikely sure does make the food taste that much better.
My friend Helen introduced me to this joint since she believes a Cambodian inspired soup called hủ tiếu Nam Vang to be on a culinary plane far superior to an ordinary bowl of homegrown pho. The name actually means Phnom Penh noodle soup, and yes, that is the Cambodian capital city. Now with my vast scientific sampling consisting of one bowl behind me, I agree with Helen.
Helen was nervous when I ordered mine with the liver slices and naturally she tried to steer me back on a more western course. But hey, why not? When in Saigon do as the Saigonese do. If it’s fit for Vietnamese consumption, why can’t an American join the party? Well, needless to say, my journey into the intricacies of animal organs quickly crapped out in the bowl as the funky texture and sour taste of liver did little to elevate my dining experience. All we can do is try, and Vietnamese people can now rest assured I will not be further poaching liver out of their food supply.
I dumped the liver into a napkin so as not to further contaminate the remaining delights in the bowl including plump shrimp, garlic, pork liver, caramelized shallot, ground pork, pork slices, noodles and of course the stock. The broth’s simplicity is what makes it so great. Boiling pig bones, pork shoulder, dried squid and shrimp yields a clear liquid with velvety texture. Rock sugar adds an unexpected element of sweet in a world where soups are more of a savory taste. Sprinkle some pepper on top with garnishes such as chives, leafy stalks of Chinese celery, lime juice, bean sprouts and hot peppers and it’s the perfect bowl of sidewalk dining.