It has come to my attention that some of you think I have been paying too much attention to noodle shops in San Gabriel. And I realize, yes, I have been writing quite a bit about San Gabriel noodle shops lately, although in my defense I would point out that some of them are technically in Alhambra or Rosemead.
San Gabriel noodle shops are a particular interest of mine, as you have probably determined — a subject I deem to be worth a lifetime of study. You may be wishing that I had spent more time exploring the San Jose–based chain restaurants that populate the new Santa Monica Place, or the murderers' row of bad Italian restaurants in Brentwood, but we all have our weaknesses: This is mine.
When I see all the new Dongbei dives that I'll never get to, when I work through all the new dumpling places up on Las Tunas Avenue, I sometimes regret that I can't devote my entire life to the medium of wet, geographically inconvenient dough. I could probably point you to 20 or 30 San Gabriel noodle shops that I haven't had time to write about so far, pho counters and mee slingers and mian merchants, and I suspect each of them is more interesting than the latest bistro to open in Van Nuys.
Which is to say, here we are again on Valley Boulevard, in another well-worn mini-mall, which seems mostly deserted yet is full of cars. We are outside Nha Trang, a cramped shop specializing in the noodles of Central Vietnam, and the reason we are outside is because the restaurant itself is slightly smaller than the backseat of a Hyundai — 15, 16 seats tops. Unless it happens to be a rainy Tuesday, you are going to spend a fair amount of time in the parking lot, idly comparing rates posted outside the many neighboring foot-massage parlors, and you will wonder what kind of person signs on to get her feet rubbed before noon. Your turn will come eventually. If you are lucky, the restaurant will not yet have run out of soup.
You may have been to Central Vietnamese restaurants before, although they are greatly outnumbered in the San Gabriel Valley by shops featuring the brassy Saigon version of the Hanoi standard pho.
Some of the Central Vietnamese restaurants, like Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa and Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, specialize in charbroiled meatballs that you wrap with herbs. Others concentrate on banh xeo, crunchy, folded crepes that look like giant tacos stuffed with bean sprouts. Most of them also sell bun bo hue, the characteristic noodle dish of the region, a funky, spicy bowl of rice noodles, pig's knuckle simmered in beef broth, and bits of pork-blood pudding — a dark and mysterious bowl, although it is often subsidiary to the more popular pho. Bun bo hue just doesn't have the right PR team.
Nha Trang, named after a big beach town in the area, is a serious noodle shop, without beer, without amusing Central Vietnamese appetizers like nem nuong or banh beo chen — just noodles, #1 through #8, read 'em from the blackboard, eat and go home. When the broth is exhausted for the day, you're out of luck — the kitchen makes only as much as it thinks it's going to need that day, and if you show up late, there may be no bun bo hue for you. (It is perfectly acceptable to call up and reserve a portion.) Console yourself with a coconut smoothie, or a drip coffee with condensed milk and ice.
There is also mi quang, like thick fettuccine tinted with turmeric, which comes with peanuts, sesame-studded rice crackers and a handful of herbs, in about three times the volume of broth you usually see with this preparation (there's usually just enough to moisten the noodles); and pure, clean pho ga, chicken noodle soup, whose yellow broth wouldn't be out of place at Canter's. Bun rieu is one of those noodle dishes that can sometimes taste like catsup and canned fish, but when done correctly — it is here — has a mildly sour tomato presence, fluffy meatballs and a distinct but not overwhelming flavor of crab that comes alive when you mix in a bit of the chile sauce and purple fermented-shrimp paste presented to you alongside the bowl.
If you are really resistant to noodles, you can get the same meatballs served in a kind of Vietnamese tomato sauce with a chunk of crisp baguette, or an umami-rich take on Hainan chicken rice, which is basically the pho ga in solid form.
But you're going to want that bun bo hue, fresh-chile-hot and lemongrass-tart, which is a cleaner version than I've ever tasted, spiked with plenty of slippery pig's knuckle meat, with neither that meat's barnyard aroma nor its thick broth, with plenty of pig's blood (if you ask for it), and without the muddy flavor or the funk: a bun bo hue you might like even if stinky, syrupy versions have made you swear off the soup for life.
NHA TRANG | 311 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel | (626) 572-7638 | Open Tues.-Sun. for lunch and supper | Cash only | No alcohol | Lot parking | Takeout | Lunch for two, food only, $7-$12 | Recommended dishes: bun bo hue; bun rieu; meatball “banh mi”