Happiness in a Bowl

From salads to phở, you can taste the history and culture of Vietnam in the noodles

Photography by Chip Chockley

In the aftermath of the war that quaked the thin, S-shaped region of Vietnam, its people exploded into a diaspora around the world, bringing their food along for the often long, horrific, and painstaking ride. Such migration has, ironically, made the United States one of the major epicenters of modern Vietnamese cuisine—especially in the South.

While Memphis is not the sizable enclave of Vietnamese Americans that Houston, San Jose or New Orleans is, the Vietnamese community here is convolved into the fabric of this city. Those who immigrated to and chose Memphis as their home have carved out a small-but-mighty slice of Memphis that networks from Cleveland Street (dubbed Little Hanoi) in the Medical District all the way out to Cordova.

Along with themselves, Vietnamese Memphians brought their food.

With an ever-growing plethora of Vietnamese restaurants in town, the variety and range of regional dishes is bountiful.

Among them, a jubilee of noodles. Fat flat ones (bánh phở), round ones (bún), glassen ones (miến), and many others in between.

While many—for good reason—flock to the long-loved and time-honored beef noodle soup (phở bò), there is a constellation of Vietnamese noodle dishes in the sky right here at home. One quick glance past the phở section on any legit Vietnamese menu will preen the eyes on a list of words with whispering and winding characters and accents that represent bowls and soups with uncommon ingredients. Things you won’t find at any old dive catering only to the traditional American palate. Turns out, there’s a lot of ground to cover in our little Delta city.

This realization was one of the deciding factors in my move to Memphis last year. Though I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Vietnam, I’ve been learning its culinary roots and consuming its cuisine as much as possible over the past few years. By and large, Vietnamese cuisine is my favorite to cook, to study, to eat. I’ve worked under Vietnamese chefs and read through many pages of intersecting histories of the country’s many, many dishes. The truth is, I’m not Vietnamese, and I’ve still got a lifetime of learning to do. Fortunately, for now, I can do a lot of it here at home.

Noodles and Vietnamese cuisine are undivorceable. Years under Chinese imperial rule cemented noodle-rich dishes as mainstays at the Vietnamese dinner table.

Today, regional staples from the northern, central, and southern regions of Vietnam all earn their keep in the daily lives and stomachs of their loyal consumers. Food writer and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen says, “Theoretically, you can enjoy Vietnamese noodle dishes all day long, especially if you eat like folks do in Vietnam, in smallish portions that allow for sampling a wide variety of foods throughout the day.”

Naturally, I took that as a challenge and set out to find the best local iterations of my favorite Vietnamese noodle dishes. After no small feat, I’m happy to report that I—having gorged myself for several days in a row on various broths, meats, and rice noodles—have done the hard labor (twist my arm!) so you don’t have to. 

This list is not exhaustive, nor does it purport to arbitrarily rank the “best” or “most essential” or use some other qualitative adjective to denote merit of one restaurant over another. That said, I did my best to pick my favorites of the dishes I wanted to explore most in this story. And don’t worry, we’ll get to phở too.

Use this brief list as a guide if you like, or as a reference to mark up your map for future exploration. Either way, I hope through this you find happiness at the bottom of your bowl.

Hủ Tiếu at Phở 4 Ever (1645 Bonnie Lane)

Pork and shrimp: a love story for the ages. This dish has roots in the Cambodian street noodle soup kuyteav, served at open-air stalls all over the country, but especially in Phnom Penh. In the 1960s, the dish migrated with Cambodian immigrants to southern Vietnam, where it found its way into Vietnamese kitchens the way so many other nations’ dishes have.

In a bowl of hủ tiếu, the two main proteins tango in synchronicity.

The broth boasts a gelatinous body and savory depth from pork bones alongside a rich funk from dried shrimp. Noodles and toppings vary from place to place and from bowl to bowl, but generally, round rice noodles are topped with sliced and ground pork, poached shrimp, hard-boiled quail eggs, garlic, shallots, scallions, Chinese chives, and celery.

At Phở 4 Ever, an entire half page of the menu is dedicated to hủ tiếu in different forms—from Nam Veng, which is its original Cambodian composition of ground pork, pork liver, loin, and shrimp toppings, to đặc biệt, with all the special fixings like sliced char siu pork and squid.

There’s a reason that hủ tiếu is highlighted so boldly on Phở 4ever’s menu. The broth is bodied yet light with an ever so slight hint of sweetness from the char siu on the tip of the tongue. The trinkets of pork and shrimp drift about the broth, both imparting and absorbing flavor. Garnishes like Chinese chives and pale celery leaves add complexity and cut sweetness with a slightly bitter allium taste. And of course, the noodles: a beautiful bundle of tender and chewy bún is the textured vehicle for the flavors of the rest of the dish. Without them, there would be no structure.

Hủ tiếu highlights the beauty in duality—a homeostasis within the binary. In this case, the distance between land and sea is abridged by the vector of the noodle in all of its slurpable simplicity. For this reason, hủ tiếu is a sleeper hit amongst the giants of Vietnamese noodles, and Phở 4 Ever’s got the goods.

Bún Bò Huế at Vietnam Restaurant (74 North Cleveland Street)

In 1802, Emperor Gia Long unified Vietnam into its present geography and located the capital in Huế, a city in central Vietnam. Huế remained the capital until 1945, when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was founded and moved the capital to Hanoi.

Huế’s culinary pride and joy, which has, like its cousin phở, extended in reach around the world, is an innard-heavy noodle soup called Bún Bò Huế. The broth is usually made from a combination of beef and pork bones, which together add a full-bodied viscosity to the soup. The bones are simmered with lemongrass and other aromatics, like shallots, and seasoned with fermented shrimp paste and a lemongrass and annatto chili sauce known as sa tế. The accompanying trinkets in the soup itself include any combination of beef shank, tendon, oxtail, pork knuckle, congealed blood, Vietnamese mortadella (chả lụa), and of course, a special variety of thick bún noodles. Other garnishes and accouterments range from lime wedges to herbs, sliced onions, and cabbage.

Yes—it’s everything but the kitchen sink. But it’s a delicious and complex dish with a royal lineage to back it up.

One of my favorite iterations of Bún Bò Huế in town can be found at Vietnam Restaurant, situated conveniently adjacent to Viet Hoa Market on North Cleveland. It’s a hearty bowl filled with all the classic ingredients, though I tend to shy away from the blood chunks. The beef shank is tender and soft, and the chả lụa is spongy and peppery. The broth is heavy with the aroma of lemongrass, which is exactly what I sniff for first in a good bowl of BBH.

But though the many parts of the sum tend to overshadow the noodles in Bún Bò Huế, they are my favorite noodle shape of all the dishes in this list. Thicker and rounder than most, Bún Bò noodles are reminiscent of those of China, which pays heed to the years of Chinese colonial rule in the region. Their thickness makes them chewier and more pleasant on the tooth than the thinner styles of bún.

Hit Vietnam Restaurant after some shopping at Viet Hoa on a dreary day and warm your soul with some Bún Bò Huế. Bring a friend if you can—happiness is only real when shared.

Bún Chả Giò at Tuyen’s Asian Bistro (288 North Cleveland Street)

There’s a reason that chả giò is a staple on every menu at every Vietnamese restaurant (yes, I say “every” with confidence). Known also by their English name, Imperial Rolls, these meat-and-noodle-filled fried rice paper pockets have an unclear history. Some believe that they were made for royalty, hence “imperial.” The Vietnamese name even differs from region to region—known as nem rán in the North and chả giò in the South.

Whatever the story, one thing is agreed upon with these iconic cylinders: They are delicious.

Though they look simple, making chả giò is a laborious task. The filling, which varies, can be made of pork, shrimp, mushrooms, water chestnuts, glass noodles, and more. Once combined, the filling is spooned into moistened rice paper and rolled tightly, like a burrito. They’re then deep fried—usually twice for extra crispiness—until golden brown.

As an appetizer, chả giò are traditionally served whole, stacked up alongside leaves of fresh lettuce, herbs and nước chấm, a fish sauce-based dipping sauce with sugar and lime. But, like most things, these delightful little bundles are even better over noodles.

Bún chả is a dish that originates in Hanoi and is essentially a salad of chilled bún noodles topped with sliced and grilled pork, lettuce, lots of herbs and nước chấm as a dressing. Bún chả giò is exactly this, but with the addition of sliced chả giò alongside the pork. The result? An amalgamation of rich, fatty, crunchy, chewy, savory, sweet, and fresh all in one place. 

At Tuyen’s Asian Bistro, situated smack dab in the middle of Memphis’ Little Hanoi, the bún chả giò đặc biệt includes the usual suspects but is also served with grilled pork sausage (nem nướng) and grilled shrimp (tôm nướng). I always ask for extra herbs when I order this, and, if I’m lucky, a whole plate of bright green and purple shiso, mint, thai basil, and cilantro appears before me.

The trick here is not to be neat. Dump in the nước chấm, jam in your chopsticks, and get to mixing.

It’s a salad, after all—maybe the most delicious you’ve ever had—with a different flavor and texture combination with each given bite. In this dish, the noodles are the mixing agent, absorbing the nước chấm and adding a hint of starch to the sauce to help it coat every ingredient equally. 

Bún chả, to me, is the ideal dish for cooling off after a long day in the sun. The added chả giò is an extra special treat, like adding potato chips to a sandwich.

Bún Riêu at Phó Só 8 (3588 Ridgeway Road)

This alarm-red noodle soup is a favorite in Vietnam, though not nearly as ubiquitous or popular throughout the rest of the world. In Memphis, it’s hard to find.

Bún riêu is thought to have originated in northern Vietnam, though it is enjoyed throughout the country, especially in regions such as the Red River and Mekong River deltas, where rice paddy crabs are abundant; their meat is more or less the star of the show of the soup.

Bún riêu broth differs from the others in this list in that it is typically not made from steeping bones. Rather, fresh crab, ripe tomatoes, and fermented shrimp or crab paste are simmered lightly, giving the liquid its characteristic red hue. The protein, or “riêu,” in the dish is its idiosyncratic, meatball-like floater of pounded crab meat, ground pork, and ground shrimp mixed with eggs. 

Additional toppings can include the likes of vermicelli bún noodles, deep fried tofu, Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), tomatoes, silky sausage, cabbage, and herbs.

Bún riêu is a rare find on your run-of-the-mill Vietnamese menu around here, maybe because it’s got too many fungible ingredients, or maybe because it’s rarely ordered.

That said, it’s one of those things that if you know, you know. I met a man on a train recently who judges the character of a Vietnamese restaurant based on their bún riêu alone. I might say that can lead to many disappointments—it’s hard to do it right, especially in areas like ours that don’t specialize in crab.

Phó Só 8’s bún riêu is tucked away deep at the back of the menu. When I first had it, I ordered it with hesitation, worried that I might be stuck with a big bowl of something I hated. I was (very gladly) proven wrong. The soup was as hot and as fresh as I could ask for, with all of the adjoining parts—fresh crab and all. The kitchen even threw some congealed blood in there, and I decided to give it another whirl. It honestly wasn’t half bad.

The bún riêu at Phó Só 8 is a deep cut of a deep cut—well worth a trip out of the way.

Phở Bò at RYU (5137 Summer Avenue)

It is said that phở was invented in the late 19th century or the early 20th century in the Nam Đinh province, about 60 miles south of Hanoi. I spoke to Rose Nguyen, owner of RYU and undisputed phở champion of Memphis. Needless to say, she is passionate about her soup and its history.

French colonists started a textile plant in Nam Đinh in 1898. Before colonization, water buffalo were used for transportation and farming rice paddies, as well as meat. The French introduced European cattle to Vietnam. They would butcher the prime cuts off the cow and discard the rest. 

Locals, who used water buffalo to make a noodle soup dish known as xáo trâu, began to collect the cattle carcasses and use them instead. Thus, phở was born.

What was once a peasant food is now one of the most popular and widely-adored noodle soups in the world.

It’s also Rose’s favorite food.

Rose assumed ownership of RYU, originally a hibachi and sushi restaurant, in 2018. She added phở to the menu to pay homage to the dish that brings her closer to the comfort of her family and heritage.

She covers beef bones with cold water and simmers them for 24 hours. Afterwards, she removes the bones and simmers for an additional two hours, skimming the surface of the liquid to clarify the broth. Then, beef brisket, roasted onions and ginger, and spices—black cardamom, cassia, star anise, cloves, and coriander—are added to the stock to simmer for a final two hours.

In serving the perfect bowl of phở bò (beef), simplicity is key. With only three key components—broth, beef and noodles—the ingredients must speak for themselves. For Rose, the most important markers of a perfect bowl of phở are the temperature of the broth, the texture of the noodles, and the freshness of the meat.

She hits the mark every time. RYU’s phở broth is deeply complex, radiating with aroma from the collagen, herbs, and spices. The beef—of which one may choose cuts like eye round, brisket, and beef tendon meatball—is tender and flavorful. Of course, the noodles—the backbone of the dish—are wonderfully chewy and light, and carry the deep and delicate flavors to the tongue seamlessly.

Of all the possibilities for phở in the city, RYU’s is my favorite. Her love and care for the essence of each small step of the dish keeps me coming back.

Joshua Carlucci is a Memphis transplant by way of California, New Orleans, and New York City. He’s a former professional cook, an MFA candidate in creative writing, and a queer advocate at OUTMemphis. When he’s not working or writing, he’s probably eating, exploring the outdoors, playing with his cat, or some combination of all three. @joshuadcarlucci

Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais, and his wife and kids. @chipchockley