Little Saigon is a special place. Centered on a few blocks of the western Tenderloin are tons of Vietnamese soup houses that possess their own followings and specialties. At the corner of Larkin and Ellis streets is the ever-popular Turtle Tower, known for its clean and classic pho gà, and within a stone’s throw are neighborhood favorites like Pho 2000 and Hai Ky Noodles. But lately, in the fog of porky pho fumes, I’ve heard whispers of a dish that defies the laws of bouillon. It’s a soup with no slurp hailing from the underrated Ha Nam Ninh. It’s called #25 Dry and it’s as seductive as it sounds.
When it comes to food, I’ve never liked limiting myself to choices. Luckily, with the #25 Dry, I don’t have to. This bowl of “soup,” also known as hu tieu nam vang, is petite, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in substance. If you’re stuck craving pork, fish, and poultry simultaneously, fret not, they’re all at this party. The contents begin with a lovely little bed of vermicelli noodles that sit in the center of the empty bowl. Piled on top is a cool medley of shrimp, squid, fish cakes, sliced pork, and ground chicken. If that isn’t enough protein for you, finish it off with a sunny-side-up egg. In the thick of the meaty mishmash are snappy bean sprouts and jalapeños with garnishes of lime and cilantro.
Served with this exotic bowl of tasty morsels is a small bowl of chicken broth on the side. Many people like to pour the liquid into the bowl, right atop its contents, but where’s the fun in that? I say break that yolk and mix everything together into an eggy noodle salad. Pluck out bite after bite of plump shrimp and bouncy fish cake. Take your time rolling the rice noodles around some squid, lean pork, and little bits of tender chicken. Then, wash it all down with a steaming sip of savory bone broth. The sensation of all these Vietnamese ingredients chased with a piping umami shot is almost as satisfying as the soup’s variety of tastes and textures. It’s as fun to eat as it is delicious, and I have grown to understand why this order has earned its legend among some of the city’s most sought-after Vietnamese treats. Sometimes, dammit, you can have it all.
Ha Nam Ninh, 701 Larkin St., 415-365-3100 or hanamninhsf.net