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Hẻm Gems: Tan Dinh's Hue Food Heaven

The area around Hue O Xuan is pretty busy, making it easy to miss the address amid its neverending traffic. Though the local chain that takes up two storefronts opposite Tan Dinh Market at 18 Nguyen Huu Cau sits pretty much empty during the afternoon, it's a madhouse in the early mornings and at night, when dozens upon dozens of diners turn up for a taste of Hue's finest.

Unlike our past hẻm gems, Hue O Xuan has – wait for it – a menu. A legitimate, actual menu. With dishes. And prices. And descriptions. This is serious: nothing says fancy like a menu.

That said, you don't need to turn past their first page to see the restaurant's most famous dish, bánh canh Nam Phổ. Rumor has it that this bowl of noodles got its start in ancient times as a humble street dish in a tiny village named Nam Pho, not far from Hue. One day, a wealthy man unintentionaly stumbled upon the dish and was so enamored of it that he brought the recipe back to Hue.

Needless to say, a soup with this kind of power is sure to grab your attention from the moment it appears in front of you. Its signature broth is thick, dark orange and, at first glance, not exactly appetizing. But the slice of chả lụa and minced herbs on top do their part to redeem the soup; anyway, looks don't matter when it comes to good food.

The secret to this orange-hued dish is its minced crab meat, which really takes the broth to another level. Add in the chả on top and extras like garlic vinegar, chili vinegar and lime, and you're well on your way to Hue food heaven.

Besides Hue O Xuan's signature soup, there are also a few twists on the original, including one with pork ribs and another with squid chả, both of which are worth a try.

But if you do nothing else, make sure to have the fish sauce. As a rule of thumb, you should always have the fish sauce, but Hue O Xuan's is especially delicious. When you talk about Hue cuisine, it's a must. Bánh bèo, bánh nậm, bánh bột lọc, chả rán, nem nướng: they're all worthless without the proper condiments, and Hue seems to have tamed the smelly beast, using it to nurture their many other delicacies.

The final dish in any respectable Hue food lineup is bún hến. Vietnam's central region is blessed with scores of these tasty little clams, and the good people of Hue use them well. What I like about this dish is that its flavors are fairly simple – no more than a hint of saltiness and a kick from the clams – but it still manages to work, particularly if you add the accompanying bowl of boiled hến water to the mix.

Make sure to get a mouthful of bún and chase it with a sip of the boiled water; the two combine to create a light, salty-but-sweet taste that's just enough to make you realize how magical and complex even the simplest foods can be.

Hue O Xuan's bún bò Huế also has a pretty high rating among local eateries in Saigon, but due to the limitations of my stomach, I could only taste so many dishes. 

To sum up

Taste : 5/5

Location : 3/5 – Located on a particularly busy street.

Friendliness : 5/5

Price : 4/5 – Dishes range from around VND6,000-40,000.

Atmosphere : 4/5  

 

Núm is a street food addict who has been eating his way through Saigon for 25 years.

Hue food

Huế O Xuân, Tân Định Market, Phú Nhuận Ward, D1

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