Saturday, December 3 2016

VietNamNews

Soup for the soul from southern Việt Nam

Update: May, 01/2016 - 09:00
Twelve o’clock rush: The bulk of Út Còi restaurant at 2B Quang Trung is housed inside, but when it gets crowded tables of diners pour out onto the pavement. Photo provided by restaurant.
Viet Nam News

Bánh canh ghẹ isn’t like other noodle soups you’ve had in Hà Nội.

 

That’s because it didn’t make its way up to the capital from HCM City until a year and a half ago, when friends Nguyễn Ánh Tuyết and Hoàng Bích Hường first opened their restaurant Út Còi.

 

The broth of Út Còi’s signature bánh canh ghẹ (crab thick rice noodle soup) is thicker than you’d expect from a Vietnamese noodle soup. It’s clear and thickened with tapioca, creating a texture similar to the classic American-Chinese sweet and sour soup. It’s made with banh canh noodles, which are round like bun but nearly as thick as your finger. They’re fun to try, but a bit unwieldy and less likely to pick up herbs and flavours in a spoonful.

 

Út Còi has moved around, but its current location is 2B Quang Trung, just southwest of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. The décor is simple: a bamboo-lined storefront, white interior walls, bamboo tables and squat little bamboo chairs not unlike the seating at street food stalls.

 

“We loved bánh canh at first sight,” said co-owner Tuyết . She and Hường are from Hà Nội, but they studied how to make the intensely popular soup when they were visiting the south. “Phở is so popular in the south, but we don’t have bánh canh here (in the north). It’s one of these really special traditional soups.”

 

Phở is a lot easier to make than bánh canhTuyết said. The thickness has to be just right. There are more steps involved, and careful control is required in the heating and addition of ingredients. Most of Út Còi’s seafood is sourced from the northern shore, but the crab comes from down south — it’s best there, Tuyết said. 

 

The broth’s sweetness — more evidence of its southern origins — comes from the fresh crab, as well as a little sugar. It’s also made with pork bone, garlic, dried shrimp and squid. Floating in the broth are fresh herbs, green onion, sliced pork, a shrimp and a quail egg. It comes with more fresh herbs on the side — a big plus in my book.

The small morsels of fresh crab I scooped up in each spoonful were extremely satisfying to someone used to the field crab crumbles of bún riêu cua (field crab noodle soup). The bits of crab shell were quite distracting at times, but not a deal-breaker. The broth was so tangy I forgot to add the extra essentials sitting on the table – lime and fresh chilli.

My friend and I also ordered the gỏi cuốn tôm thịt (shrimp and pork spring rolls). They weren’t much to look at and the rice paper was quite sticky, but the dip was divine, made with pork, peanuts and black sauce. They also offer bánh bột lọc măng cay (bamboo shoot dumplings with tapioca starch), which have a strong black pepper flavour and are worth a try if you enjoy the pungent bamboo. 

Út Còi’s prices are affordable — VNĐ55,000 for a bowl of seafood-laden soup. If you’re craving a bowl of noodles and seeking out a sweet southern alternative to your regular bún or phở, it’s worth a try.

Tuyết and Hường want to show diners a bit of traditional culture without the grimy reputation of street food, Tuyết said. Their establishment is reminiscent of a street food stall in terms of decor, but they are looking to divorce themselves from that image when it comes to hygiene. They see Út Còi as a growing brand.

 

"We plan to expand, but not too many," Tuyết added. "We want to do it in a very traditional way, not like a fast food restaurant, so we do it step-by-step, not so quickly." — VNS

 

Soup du jour: Bánh canh ghẹ (crab thick rice noodle soup) is Út Còi’s signature dish, made with tapioca-thickened broth and extremely large noodles. Pictured here with trà la nep nha đam (ananas leaves with aloe vera tea). Photo taken by author.
Rollout: The gỏi cuốn tôm thịt (shrimp and pork spring rolls) themselves aren’t much to write home about, but the dip - pork, black sauce and peanuts - left a pretty positive impression. Photo taken by author.

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