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Jul 9, 2009 10:37 PM

Lesser Known Vietnamese Noodle Soup: Canh Bun at Quan Bun Ban Mai, Little Saigon (Review and Pix)

We love little hole in the walls and small culinary treasures. Granted, we enjoy a fine elegant meal as anyone else would, but there's something homey and comforting about places that you know and trust and can always return to for great day to day food. One such place is Quan Bun Ban Mai in Westminster in the heart of Little Saigon.

This restaurant specializes in a delicious noodle soup called canh bun, a very binh dan, or common working folk dish. In fact, the owners are from a small farming town about 1 hr south of Hanoi called Nam Dinh, which is where my grandparents family were from and where my dad was born.

Canh bun is a little known noodle soup that originated in northern Vietnam and is very similar to one of our all time favorite Vietnamese noodle soup bun rieu (crab noodle soup). The broth of these soups are the same pork bone and minced crab meat, but what sets this dish apart from bun rieu is that the thick rice noodles (same as ones used in bun bo hue) are cooked for a period of time in the broth, rendering a silky soft texture. Also rau muong (ong choy/morning glory/water spinach) is also cooked in the broth infusing it with the flavors of this favorite vegetable. Common accompiments include fried tofu, tomatoes, huyet (blood cake), fish cakes, and shrimp paste. Quan bun's version also includes oc (periwinkle) meat used in bun oc.

A squeeze bottle of fermented shrimp paste (mam nem) sits at every table. This is not a place for the weak of heart or a place to bring a first date as this pungent smell can be overpowering to some...but we love it!

The dac biet (special) canh bun with all the fixings is about $6 for a small bowl-- fairly reasonable for Little Saigon. A plate of extra rau muong is $1. They have other good soups on the menu, including bun rieu and bun oc as well as other northern Vietnam regional dishes such as bun cha Hanoi, however the canh bun is the dish that has kept them in business for over 20 years.

Instead of the usual pho or bun bo hue, try this lesser known but fantastic noodle soup sometime when you're in Little Saigon. Atmosphere wise, there's nothing pretty at this restaurant but your stomach will leave happy. The restaurant is in a strip mall of numerous Vietnamese fruit shops and bakeries so stop by for some soup and fresh exotic fruits such as durian, jackfuit, or longan. If you're not from southern California, we understand...we'll post our canh bun recipe soon!

Photos after the jump

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  1. Looks really great. Good find! I don't love huyet (it just doesn't taste like much and the texture is not so exciting to me) but easy enough to eat around it -- and I *do* love oc (the periwinkle, though I love OC too, because it has places for me to get oc).

    5 Replies
    1. re: Das Ubergeek


      even among Vietnamese, canh bun isn't very well known--esp for the youngins' born or raised here. I thought our family was about as Bac as you can be in terms of food, but didn't discover this until in Hanoi a few years back. Where is your favorite for bun oc?

      1. re: hppzz

        Saw your blogpost on this place this morning & it sounded soooo good! How is the restaurant itself? I forwarded it to one of my foodie VN friends & she said she is "kind of scared" to go there. Not sure if she meant because the place wasn't too "hygenic" or the neighborhood itself. The canh bun is on my list to try!

        1. re: christoofat

          We've gone there plenty of times and never had any issues--definitely nothing to be scared of unless you're afraid of a food fight with all the squeeze bottles of fermented shrimp paste flying around! :)

          It's a fairly sizable restaurant, however it def. fits of the bill as "hole in the wall." Decorations are sparse and dates back to the 80's. I don't recall the exact rating (A, B, C...) but it is certainly not the spotless place nor is it outright dirty either. Compared to places in the area is similar to Van's Restaurant (famous for banh xeo)... The plaza that it's in can be a bit unsightly due to litter in the parking lot and sidewalk. There's also lots of enterprising women in conical hats that sell homemade stuff on the sidewalk of that plaza. But again, these are minor issues for adventurous foodies :)

          1. re: hppzz

            ah , ok then. I've been to Van's several times & it was great, so I think I can handle this one. After all it isn't the ambiance that's the draw , but the experience!

        2. re: hppzz

          Every time we go to Quan Hy, that is what my wife orders (Bun Oc). I've had it too and it is very good. I love to eat snails but it is hard to find good ones here. In Vietnam we ate fingersnails in tamarind sauce. Oh man, was that good.

          I can't remember but she says the Canh Bun at Quan Hop is good. Personally, I can't remember. Is it made with the thick 'fresh" noodles? That is a Vietnamese noodle dish I love. One of my wife's specialties.

      2. This sounds fantastic.

        Also: can you recommend a place for straight-up bun rieu, which I crave, especially when slightly hungover? Is this the best for bun rieu?

        I've had a hankering for bun cha hanoi, too - i've been hammering the version at Brodard's for years...

        6 Replies
        1. re: Thi N.

          Vien Dong's bun cha Ha Noi is superior to Brodard's.

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            Heh. Never tried it yet. But Vien Dong is, indeed, effin' sweet.

            1. re: Das Ubergeek

              agreed, brodard isnt even close to vien dong

            2. re: Thi N.

              Hanoi restaurant is also is pretty good for bun cha Ha noi.

              Quan bun ban mai has a pretty good bun rieu as well and they use a similar broth for both canh bun and bun rieu.

              1. re: hppzz

                Hanoi Restaurant is one of those places where I am unable to explore well, because my order is always fixed. I must have the dill catfish. My girlfriend must have the banh tom. If there's another person, I must have the bun rieu. So I've never had their bun cha.

                Thanks for the recc's!

                1. re: Thi N.

                  Know exactly how you feel! Good Little Saigon restaurants need to be known for a few items in order to survive and it really limits us from exploring the menu more. We love the Hen tron (baby clam salad?) at Quan Vy Da and that's buried way back in the menu.

            3. hppzz,

              This is my all time FAVORITE soup noodles!!!!! This dish is so under-rated. I was reading your post last night and I was totally salivating! I will be going to this place for lunch today! There are a lot of small plazas on Bolsa.. what else is in this plaza with the restaurant?
              Btw, checked out your blogspot and love the Mi Quang recipe... been dying to get that recipe!

              2 Replies
              1. re: karynx78

                karynx78: thanks for the kind words and visiting our're lucky to work so close to all the good eats in little saigon! Well, restaurant wise we haven't had anything else of note in this plaza. The two fruit fresh shops are alot of fun.

                1. re: hppzz

                  My brother and I stopped by Thurs for lunch at Quan Bun Ban Mai. You were not kidding that Canh Bun is their specialty. Everyone there was eating the same thing!!! It's like I found a secret cult of Canh Bun lovers. It was fantastic. The broth was very light, but very flavorful. My brother and felt that the huyet (pork blood) was especially flavorful. My brother got a little too excited about the shrimp paste and squirted it on his pants and had to deal with the smell as he went back to work. lol I also liked that they were very generous with the rau mung ( green veggies in the soup) We both has ordered the combo with everything on it and LARGE. It definitely tasted home-style and we felt the love that was put in it. I do have to say that the soup base was quiet different than what I'm used to. Like the one from Quan Hop is more tomato based and a little thicker. The soup at QH has more crab flakes in it while QBBm has clusters of it mixed with egg. The QH soup base is richer in texture. I wonder which one is more the traditional soup base? I would be curious of how you would rate the QH canh bun because I surely can not get enough of it.

              2. this place sounds great, never heard of the trip...its high on my list of places to try next time im home (ive been trying to find every great place in little saigon when im home from NY)

                1 Reply
                1. re: Lau

                  Tried to get over here this week, but left a little late ,and by the time I crawled down Bolsa & found it, I saw a very large group heading in there, so I figured I'd never get in & back to work in time. Ended up going to Luc Dinh Ky restaurant at the corner of Bushard & Bolsa for their Hu Tieu Vit Van Nam (Spicy Duck soup w/ rice noodle)
                  Will try leaving earlier next time!