Up until a short while ago, Huong Que didn't even have a menu. "I just made it for American customers," says the restaurant's chef-owner, Kenny Tran, as he proudly hands my friend and me the glossy, scuff-free booklet. His regulars have never needed a menu. They just order Huong Que's specialty: chicken. More specifically, chicken pho, poached chicken with ginger sauce, and rice porridge with -- you guessed it.
After my first meal at the house of chicken 'n' noodles, a spotless, brightly lit restaurant just off International Boulevard, Tran told us that chicken pho (pho ga, pronounced fuh ga) is more popular than beef pho in Vietnam because it's considered healthier. His story doesn't quite check out, though. In Vietnam, chicken and beef are the two great variations on the country's national dish, a subtle, homey, thrilling, I-could-eat-this-every-morning-for-the-rest-of-my-life soup served from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The basics: clear, aromatic broth, thinly sliced meat, a mess of rice noodles, and then all the herbs, bean sprouts, lemon slices, sliced chiles, and condiments that you care to put into your bowl.
But beef pho still holds pride of place. As food writer Thy Tran told me, if you say pho, Vietnamese people think beef -- just like if you tell an American you're grilling him a burger, he won't automatically respond, "Yum, turkey." Chicken, however, takes a little less time to render a decent stock and may be better suited to everyday home cooking.
Almost every pho parlor in the Bay Area serves pho ga, but it's always beef pho's plain-jane sidekick, about as captivating as a Hallmark card. It's clear that the pho makers spend all their energy weaving together the glorious flavors in the beef stock, marrow and shallots sustaining its warp and weft, filaments of star anise and cinnamon glimmering in its sheen.
But Huong Que doesn't even do beef pho. The base of its standard chicken pho is a golden, Tahoe-clear broth, its limpid succulence enhanced by the sweetness of long-braised onions. To that the kitchen adds fat, slippery rice noodles, and your choice of wings, breasts, thighs, intestines, or just about any combination thereof. You can order the meat whole or boned and shredded. In fact, the menu warns, if you order the chicken with bones, pay attention -- the restaurant is not responsible for choking.
On my first visit I ordered pho with shredded chicken and intestines, but happily, the dish was mistranslated. Instead of sucking up stringy intestines I just crunched my way through poached, sliced gizzards. (Not that I'm not committed to tasting everything on the menu, but sometimes it's a relief not to have to leap so far to cross the cultural gap.) A pho minimalist, unwilling to sully the broth, I tossed in a little cilantro and a handful of poached mung bean sprouts. Then, for the first time, I sipped on a chicken pho that almost rivaled its more glamorous sister.
On the second visit, my friends and I tasted from the other, non-chicken-oriented half of the list of soups, all based on the same chicken stock. In addition to the default wide rice noodles (ho fun), Huong Que offers thinner "rice stick" noodles (think pad Thai), skinny wheat noodles, and stretchy, transparent "clear noodles" made with rice and manioc (tapioca) flours. We slurped up these gummy noodles in the fish soup, along with delicately battered whitefish fritters floating on top. In the ultimate combination, chao chu and ho fun soup, not only do you get two kinds of noodles -- the chewy, thin chao chu (Teochew) wheat noodles and the fat ho fun -- but the soup comes with prawns, thick slices of roasted pork, and shredded chicken. Bonanza.
The second day's broth wasn't quite as transcendent as the first soup; in fact, the more bare-bones broth was a little salty. One of my tablemates came up with an amazing solution: stirring in the ginger dipping sauce that comes with the poached chicken.
And the chicken with ginger sauce, house specialty number two, is sublime. The sauce is Kenny's trademark, one of the new elements he brought to Huong Que when he took over the fourteen-year-old restaurant three years ago. It reflects the Vietnamese-born Tran's Teochew (southern Chinese) heritage. In fact, not three days before I ate at Huong Que I'd eaten a slight variation on the same dish at Moonlight in Albany.
Like the chicken pho, Huong Que's chicken is simplicity itself -- a warm, poached bird, served by the quarter, half, or whole (and they do mean whole, innards and all). With the chicken, you're given a small saucer of a fragrant, biting pesto of chopped scallions, crushed ginger, oil, and salt. Its intensity complements perfectly the delicate chicken. Underneath the succulently fatty skin is meat so tender its appeal is carnal.
Although in Vietnam it's customary to eat noodle soups throughout the day, they're more of an a.m. dish than a p.m. one. So is Huong Que's third specialty, chao. A thick porridge made with rice and water, chao is a blank canvas, showing off anything you want to toss into it. Obviously, chicken is big here, but I tried a version of this comforting soup that contained chunks of ground "lean pork" and funky, sulphury preserved eggs. (Sometimes known as thousand-year-old eggs, they are coated with a mixture of tea, salt, lime, and ashes and buried for a few months. When they're dug up, the whites have turned a gorgeous, translucent obsidian and the yolks a creamy blue-gray.)
As the pork evidences, chicken is not the only thing on Huong Que's menu -- Tran is branching out into other meats. Other dishes on the tiny, interchangeable menu include beef stew served with crisp French rolls -- a remainder of colonial days -- and stewed oxtail.
I wasn't so impressed with the oxtail meat. Oxtail, when I love it best, is stewed for hours and hours until all the fat melts away, the meat can be sucked off the bones, and the stock reduces into an epigram of beefiness. Huong Que's oxtail could have braised another hour. However the braising liquid, spruced up with a little turmeric, a little star anise, and a squeeze of lime, became a meaty, fragrant, demi-curry. Another curry, this one with duck, looked thin and watery, and when you dredged the bottom with a spoon whole spices floated up. But its rough-hewn flavors were potent enough to flavor the mountain of white rice that came with it.
Huong Que's drinks case is stocked with the standard array of canned juices, curious-looking sodas, and fresh soy milk. For a thrill, pick out a plastic bottle of freshly made pennywort drink. Pressed and thinned out with sugar water, the dark-green liquid tasted like wheatgrass juice blended up with a little shiso and parsley -- only not so potent. After a couple of sips, though, I switched to a bright, sweet housemade limeade.
Talking to Tran, I got the feeling that he has bigger visions for Huong Que: a real menu, a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) counter out front, new dishes. My favorite innovation is the free lottery ticket you receive when you spend more than $25. Make like the regulars, though, who still come for what Huong Que does best: chicken, chicken, and more chicken.
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