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Bun Bo Hue Mystery at Pho 88 Lowell

crowdingthepan Oct 7, 2011 11:02 AM

H-Mart in Burlington and a good homebrew supply shop in Waltham have me making a weekly trip down route three from my home state of NH. Lowell’s Pho 88 gets a lot of love on this board, so I stopped in for a bowl of Bun Bo Hue last weekend. My only previous experience with this dish was at Pho Golden Bowl in Manchester NH, where it seems to be nothing more than a bowl of pho with enough chilis in it to give it some heat and tint the broth red. At Pho 88, the broth is spicy and tremendously complex, with a BIG star anise presence. It tasted like a brothy version of Malaysian dishes like rendang, or curry mee. I loved it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the pork blood and pig trotter in my soup, which had me suspecting the dumbed-down-for-the-white-guy treatment. I inquired, the waitress asked the kitchen staff, and they claimed that they’d run out of the proper pork parts.
Upon returning home, I immediately hit the internet in search of bun bo hue recipes. To my surprise, none of them described a dish with the flavor profile I’d experienced. The primary flavor component in traditional bun bo hue is, apparently, lemongrass. The whole thing is supposed to be much simpler than the broth at Pho 88. Standard pho broth does have some star anise in it, but I sampled my wife’s bowl of pho dac biet, and the spice proportions were very different from what I was slurping. Any Vietnamese soup experts around here with easy answers?
I'm thinking about returning to Pho 88 tomorrow for mi vit tiem, but I liked so much whatever it is that they served me last week, I may not be able to resist a repeat bowl. This time, hopefully full of offal bits.

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Pho 88
1270 Westford St, Lowell, MA 01851

H-Mart
3 Old Concord Rd, Burlington, MA 01803

 
  1. MC Slim JB Oct 7, 2011 11:41 AM

    Without the pig's blood and trotter (and I'm pretty sure a few other parts), I would have demanded a refund. The last bowl I had there certainly had the complex broth you described, not a one-note lemongrass thing.

    http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

    2 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB
      justbeingpolite Oct 7, 2011 11:53 AM

      I've always found the pho at Pho 88 (usually get the Pho Bo Vien) has a pretty strong star anise taste (in a good way).

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      Pho 88
      1270 Westford St, Lowell, MA 01851

      1. re: justbeingpolite
        crowdingthepan Oct 7, 2011 12:18 PM

        It had that and all the other flavors you'd want in a great pho broth, but not in the same quantity. As I said, this had a presence of warming spices (for lack of a better descriptor) that I associate with Malaysian and Thai/Muslim food. That happens to be some of my favorite stuff on earth, so I wasn't complaining.

    2. Luther Oct 7, 2011 02:32 PM

      Bun bo hue is not pho, and it shouldn't be made by taking pho broth and adding chile oil. Star anise is standard for pho, but should not be used in proper bun bo hue. You can get a pretty solid bowl at Xinh Xinh. Most pho places around will just give you pho broth with chili oil, it sucks. Here's a good rundown:

      http://wanderingchopsticks.blogspot.c...

      2 Replies
      1. re: Luther
        crowdingthepan Oct 8, 2011 04:54 AM

        That link provides great info, Luther. Thanks! Maybe I didn't articulate myself well in my original post, though. I'd had the spiced up Pho at another restaurant and suspected that it was what I was served at Pho 88. But, I tried my wife's bowl of standard Pho, and there were distinct differences aside from the addition of chili. I guess they've invented their own dish that isn't really bu bo hue, but is delicious nonetheless. Also, I would argue that while a beautifully constructed bowl of Pho with chili oil in it would not, apparently, be bun bo hue, it would hardly "suck". By the time I'm done applying the tabletop condiments to my Pho, that's just about what I usually end up with anyway.

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        Pho 88
        1270 Westford St, Lowell, MA 01851

        1. re: crowdingthepan
          crowdingthepan Oct 8, 2011 04:59 AM

          Also, thanks for the Xinh Xinh recommendation. I'm rearranging my schedule so that I can give that a try sometime in the next few days. I'll report my impressions!

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          Xinh Xinh
          7 Beach St, Boston, MA 02111

      2. MrsCheese Oct 7, 2011 07:31 PM

        Well, the pic looks lovely, and like what I've experienced. I would have been pissed about the trotter though; it's my favorite part.

        1. p
          paul balbin Oct 7, 2011 07:51 PM

          In my local favorite Pho shop they have been serving Bun Bo Hue with sliced tenderloin in place of the
          traditional tendon and tripe to the Caucasian customers. You can still get the traditional meats but you
          have to ask for them. I wonder what is next.

          1 Reply
          1. re: paul balbin
            Luther Oct 8, 2011 04:57 AM

            bun bo hue isn't supposed to be served with tendon or tripe.

          2. MC Slim JB Oct 7, 2011 08:14 PM

            I'm certainly not anyone who might be mistaken for possibly Vietnamese, but have never had to make any special requests to get the traditional fare there; if anything, the fact that I didn't have to beg to be treated like an ex-pat guest was a plus. But I haven't been back in over a year.

            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

            1. crowdingthepan Oct 10, 2011 10:23 AM

              Since, according to Luther and a few folks in a few other threads on this board, Xinh Xinh has the definitive local example of bun bo hue, I gave it shot. I had to pick up some brewing supplies in Woburn, so I made a trip from Concord NH to Woburn via Chinatown (you might be a food nerd if…).
              Totally different from what I ate at Pho 88, but very, very good. A slick of liquid fat on top of a soup or stew is almost always a good sign, no? It didn’t have the overt lemongrass kick that I was anticipating, and it’s certainly a simpler flavor profile than whatever I was served in Lowell, but this is a broth that someone has put a lot of love into. It has a very rich, deep flavor that reminds me of the western soups I begin to crave at this time of year. And, it was full of trotter bits, pork loaf and some unidentifiable proteins. Good stuff.

              -----
              Xinh Xinh
              7 Beach St, Boston, MA 02111

              Pho 88
              1270 Westford St, Lowell, MA 01851

               
              1 Reply
              1. re: crowdingthepan
                Luther Oct 10, 2011 05:04 PM

                Nice photo! If it's not lemongrassy they have either changed the recipe or the usual people aren't in the kitchen. I had a couple bowls last year that were extremely lemongrassy.

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