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Monday, April 13, 2009

One name to bind them all

A problem I have been wrestling with is the issue of how restaurant reviewers tend to focus on a dish and some idealized paradigm of how that dish should be. For example, you have blogs that just focus on a "good" hamburger - whatever that incarnation may be. There are aficionados who decry the dry burger, or the addition of onions or garlic because it interferes with the "beefiness" of the flavor. But perhaps there are independent interpretations of each dish, and we just lack the language to do them justice.

Recently, I ordered beef noodle soup at four different locations, and came up with four different interpretations. In general, the beef used is a cheaper cut chuck full of tendons - consequently, chewy and flavorful. The directions taken, as well as the choice of noodles, vary greatly.

Tea Cup Cafe: in the same strip mall as Viet Hoa, this is the most expensive item on the menu. The broth is redolent with star anise and ginger, served with egg noodles, and plenty of blanched bok choy. It is comforting on a chilly night, and coupled with free WiFi access, makes for a well paced single bowl meal.

Fufu Cafe's interpretation of the beef noodle soup is spicy, complex in flavor, served in an enormous bowl (in my opinion, sufficient to serve three people), bolstered with a dose of pickled mustard leaves, uses excellent home made wheat noodles...and is about $2 cheaper than the version from Tea Cup Cafe. No WiFi, though, but I don't really know if that is something that can be tasted :).

Many Vietnamese restaurants (for example, Mai's in Midtown) offer at least two versions of the beef noodle soup. Bun bo Hue, a spicy brothy soup that is coupled with pork blood cubes, and uses rice noodles, and bun bo kho, more of a stew with carrots, and cinnamon, and usually served with egg noodles.

Thai Spice Express serves the Thai beef curry noodle, rich with coconut milk, spiked with fish sauce, fresh herbs, and tamarind, and carrying a hard boiled egg as a coup de grace.

Dare we even compare these versions to canned beef noodle soup?

I personally can't put these dishes on the same scale - they are different variations of a theme, each one with strengths the others don't. How pointless would it be to say where the best beef noodle soup is to be found?

1 comment:

  1. Beef noodle soup in ottawa (canada) is synonymous with vietnamese "pho" - very similar to the dish you got in the tea cup cafe, flavorful but not spicy clear broth, cheap chewy meat. However, the dish is ALWAY with rice noodles, and often served with a side of sauces (Sriracha, hoisin), lime, thai basil leaves, and bean sprouts. Beef noodle soup, in the 100 or so vietameseish restaurants in ottawa, is almost entirely the same...