Another random discovery has broadened my food world one tasty spoonful at a time. Hem 18A is quite easy to miss in District 1 just off Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street. Hem means “alley” but these aren’t the narrow service streets behind houses and buildings we know so well in the US. Alleys done Vietnam style are a complex spiderweb of narrow passageways opening up entire neighborhoods not even apparent from the main road. Bun Bo Bao Tram just inside busy Alley 18A has an extensive menu of noodles and soups.
Oprah had her favorite things show. Now I have my favorite things soup. Actually most every taste I enjoy in Vietnam swirls around in one white porcelain bowl of this bún riêu cua ốc. Well, almost every taste. I can do without the gelatinous chunks of congealed pig blood, but the other items are great. Actually more than great, but yeah, I know…that congealed pig blood. It tastes about how it sounds. Imagine something the consistency of Jello but with the milky color of pudding. Have you ever tasted blood in your mouth like when you bust your lip? That’s the taste…metallic and dense.
Let’s just put all that bad blood behind us and concentrate on the rest of this highly decent brew. The flavors range from sweet to salty to savory to spicy, and each spoonful hits a different part of the tongue with all sorts of sensations and flavors.
The name bún riêu cua ốc means noodles with crab and snail, and the crab element’s origins come as a surprise to me. These are freshwater rice paddy crabs sporting very thin shells. Trust me; I had no idea either that rice paddies are full of crabs. I guess I just imagined a bunch of snakes and snails floating around in foul water. In any case, the crabs are pounded into a paste, shell and all, which forms the basis of the broth along with tomatoes. The smooth residue, for lack of a better term, from the pounding process forms crab meatballs which in this version were served in crab shell cradles. What a great little five star dining touch in an otherwise full on street food joint these are.
Rubbery snails, a sweet grey colored sausage with black pepper bits, fried fish cake, and even a meatloaf all compete with the crab for center stage. Scallions, onions, tomatoes, andd garlic round out the flavor combination. Add to it a squeeze of fresh lime, chili peppers, and spicy relish and you are now seeing why this is one of my favorite things. Oh, in my excitement to relive this amazing crab meal , I almost forgot to mention the rice noodles. Thin ropy strands hit the spot and absorb the annatto seed tinted broth’s reddish hue.
This is a busy soup for sure requiring much preparation from a long list of ingredients. That I found this bowl of bún riêu cua ốc for just over a dollar is simply one of those amazing Vietnamese wonders. Bun Bo Bao Tram’s large menu has several other variations I will no doubt sample.