With so many great Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, it’s easy to find your little neighborhood spot and never venture outward — but you should. Find your pho roll place, your five-spice chicken joint, and a spot that does the tofu cabbage salad that’s just a little better than the rest. Seek out that new love affair you can’t go more than a few days without.
My latest obsession is a spicy bowl of soup in the Duboce Triangle that has hooked itself to my heart. At first glance, Jasmine Garden always kind of looks closed, although a little bell rings in the doorway to inform the entire restaurant you’ve arrived. A tiny koi pond abuts the host stand and a never-ending loop of Vietnamese food markets plays on a big-screen TV. The atmosphere can be a little quiet and strange — but when food is good, oddities evolve into character, and this food is great.
It’s imperative to start with a light snack. The imperial rolls ($8.50) are golden-brown with a delicious filling of pork, carrots, garlic, wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, peanuts, and water chestnuts. (How they fit all that in these little glorious tubes is a mystery.) Impeccably crispy, they’re with the perfect amount of greasy succulence. But you’re here for some soup.
The Hue Noodle ($10.50), or Bún bò Hue, is “the heartier, spicier cousin to pho,” and it doesn’t take more than one whiff to realize who’s the over-achiever in the family. Its devilish red color taunts, “Are you ready for this?” Thin slices of raw beef float atop a bed of saturated rice noodles, slowly cooking in the bubbling broth. Garnishes of raw basil, cabbage, lime, and jalapeño, served on the side, are to be plucked apart and dropped in as preferred. Deep flavors of stock and lemongrass flutter over the tongue as it’s blanketed with fatty oils of beef and chili. Using chopsticks, I clasp a cluster of noodles, tender beef, and crunchy veggies to create the most wonderful mouthful of Vietnamese flavors. The immense heat and powerful ingredients induce a drunken haze of slurping and sipping until the massive bowl is completely empty.
Bún bò Hue is naughty. It beckons in the late hours of the night, holds my undivided attention, and it has pushed my beloved pho to the wayside.
I’m afraid I’ve gone too deep, and there is no turning back. So enter at your own risk, because there’s no lifeguard on duty and once you dive into this Bún bò Hue, your relationship with soup may never be the same.
Jasmine Garden, 708 14th St., 415-861-2682, no website.