Thin Wheat Line is a weekly Voracious feature profiling noodles in Seattle.
Noodle: Hu tieu nam vang
Source: Tu Oanh, 1207 S. Jackson St., B101, 568-7208
Price: $7.25 (small)
Back in my mid 20s, when I was eating pho two to three times a week, I used to occasionally mix it up with a bowl of hu tieu, sometimes called Cambodian-style noodle soup (Nam Vang is apparently the Vietnamese name for Phnom Penh). It's the subtler sister to pho, made with either a clear chicken or pork-and-squid stock, without that bewitching note of star anise, the fragrant rush of Thai basil, or the drama of watching raw beef transforming from pink to gray as you stir the hot broth. I'd order hu tieu simply when I wanted the plainest of plain food, or some seafood in place of beef. I often see hu tieu on the menu and think, eh, I'll try that next time.
But I went to Tu Oanh with the sole intention of ordering hu tieu. Am I ever glad I stuck to my resolve, because I had one of the best versions I've yet tasted.I'd almost written off Tu Oanh the first time I visited, not realizing that I'd gone to the Southern Vietnamese restaurant in the first few weeks after it took over for another here-and-gone restaurant (the new owners simply kept the "Grand Opening" sign). I must have hit Tu Oanh before the cooks had settled in.
Like pho, the secret to hu tieu is all in the broth -- it's got to be delicate enough not to overpower the prawns and squid and but rich enough to back up the Chinese-style roast pork and the liver/kidney slices floating in the bowl, along with a hank of rice noodles. The secret here: toasty, sweet fried shallots.
Tu Oanh also serves its hu tieu with two herbs I rarely see in Vietnamese restaurants. The waiter only knew the Vietnamese name of one, which he called "ngoc" -- the frilly leaves looked somewhat like chrysanthemum greens. The second herb: a few stalks of Chinese celery. The difference between Chinese celery and western celery is the difference between a cherry tomato you grow in your backyard and one of those pink January Flavr Savrs you get on your Wendy's burger. I tore up the herbs, scattered them around the soup, and on the waiter's advice, dosed the broth with a spoonful of pickled garlic slices from a jar on the table (they went particularly well with the pork kidney slice).
Every time I felt myself taking the soup for granted, I'd sit back for a minute, read a few paragraphs in my magazine and take a few necessary sips from a frosted glass of ice water (the place was heated to steamy Saigon spring temperatures). Then I'd return to the broth, with its nutty overtones, its surprising depth, the fragrant crunch of pickled garlic and celery. Not boring at all.