I have discovered another great soup. My fingers trembled with anticipation over the sweet aroma, the shining aurulent broth, those fragile fatty bubbles that form a thin film on the surface, the promising dapple of fried shallot,… and the pictures got all blurry. So just squint your eyes and pretend for the moment that you’re hunching over a bowl of piping hot succulence and the steam makes your eyes hazy. Can you smell that sweet aroma? No? Grab a chair at Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ #9 in North Oakland, ask for a bowl of bún mộc, and find out for yourself.
Before diving thy chopsticks into the noodle soup, let us start with the name. It can be spelled either bún mọc or bún mộc, the hat on the “o” changes the word’s meaning and thus the name’s origin, but nobody is certain which one is correct. “Mộc” means “simple”, the broth is simply boiling water savorized by salt, pepper, nuoc mam, pork, shiitake, and wood ear mushroom. “Mộc” also means pork paste (twice-ground or pounded pork, seasoned, known as “giò sống” in Vietnamese), which is the central ingredient in the original soup but not in the rendition at Tay Ho #9. I like gio song, but sliced meatballs and cha lua (silk sausage) make a trustworthy substitution. The cook here also threw in some shredded chicken breast as a reassurance of familiar fixings. Now if you drop the hat on the “o”, “Mọc” is the nickname of the former village Nhân Mục, a part of west Hanoi today. This village can very well be the hometown of the meat-laden rice noodle soup, hence the noodle soup’s name. However the spelling goes, all we southerners know is bun moc comes from the north and is less than popular in Saigon. Most Vietnamese immigrants in the Star Flag States are southerners, so bun moc is even harder to find on the menus here. But as long as there’s a kitchen somewhere churning out these mouth-warming, bellicious bowls, there will be my pair of chopsticks eager for a hearty winter fling.
In the mood for something a little more adventurous?
If bun moc might seem on the mild side, you know, ground pork and white meat, and healthy mushroom for crying out loud, then bun bo Hue would spice up the buds. Bun bo Hue is synonymous with chili paste and satay, there’s just no way out of the heat. There’s no way out of the brutal assortment either, beef chunks, gelatinous cubes of congealed pork blood, some hasty slanted cuts of pig trotter. The blood cube doesn’t taste bloody though, it’s rather bland (naturally, it’s cooked and unseasoned) and only for textural purposes. I’ve sampled this beef noodle soup at Kim Son and Bun Bo Hue Co Do, but third time is indeed a charm, I enjoyed it at Tay Ho. Either that or the hostess’s friendliness, a rare delight to diners in Vietnamese restaurants, which alone makes me want to go back to this place.
1 bún bò Huế + 1 bún mọc + 1 large bánh cuốn to-go for lunch the next day: $22.67
Address: Tây Hồ Restaurant – Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ #9
344B 12th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Also check out Bánh Cuốn Hoa II in Houston, they have nice duck noodle soup (bún măng vịt).