Good ol’ tomato and crab noodle soup from Southern Vietnam: bún riêu (pronounced |boon rhee-oo|). The broth looks alarmingly spicy but this soup is actually never spicy. The orange red color comes from tomato and annatto seeds, and if you’re lucky, crab roe (if fresh crabs are used for the soup).
The sweetness of the broth comes from freshwater paddy crabs, where the whole crab (meat and shell) is ground to a paste and strained for the juice. It’s a delicate, distinctive sweetness that can’t be reproduced with dashi no moto, meat bones or mushroom. To deepen the flavor, the cook adds some mắm ruốc, fermented krill paste, to the broth.
Traditionally, bun rieu has crab meat and tofu for the protein part, but bun rieu at Ba Le Sandwich is ladened with cha lua, pork and shrimp.
Traditionally, it’s one of those commoner’s noodle soups that every other street stall sells in Vietnam, nutritious, filling, unrefined, a richness of everyday life and earthy pleasures. Somehow I grew up not thinking much of it and was never impressed by it. In the bustle of North Cali, bun rieu is still nothing more than a commoner’s noodle soup, never elevated to the level of party food, but the more I think about it, the more I find it romantic. In one bowl, I was tasting the unctuous harmony of wetland and freshwater, of simple vegetables and grains and crustaceans that grow up together in one environment and end up together in one pot, or at least that’s how the noodle soup was originally designed. Do things taste best in the company of what they grow up with? I’m inclined to think so.
Back to a matter-of-fact viewpoint, the inside of Ba Le Sandwich in East Oakland, has been renovated earlier this year into a neat little diner enough to sit 12-14 people, since most customers come for to-go banh mi and on-the-counter goodies such as mungbean milk and sesame beignet. They have hand down the best banh mi in the East Bay north, but everything else tastes good because they know how to season things.
Address: Banh Mi Ba Le (Ba Le Sandwich)
1909 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94606
One bowl of delta romanticism: $6.50. Another awesome thing about this place: they open at 6:30 am.