By Cheryl Baehr
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By Cheryl Baehr
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When the guy behind the counter at Phuc Loi asks if you're sure you want pork blood in your bun bo Hue — and if, like me, you're a non-Vietnamese dude who has just spent several minutes studying the menu taped to the counter and the photo menu above the counter, he probably will ask if you're sure you want pork blood in your order of bun bo Hue — say yes. I should note that this isn't blood sausage, but congealed blood, its texture like Jell-O custard, its color a purple-tinged gray, like twilight filtered through woodsmoke. Will it lead you to a gastronomic revelation? I offer no guarantees. But life is short, and we live in the heart of the heart of the country. Just how many chances will you ever have to say, "Yeah, sure, throw the pork blood in there"?
In fact, pork blood plays a bit part in bun bo Hue, a soup that takes its name from the Vietnamese city of Hue. The three pieces of congealed blood, each roughly the size of half an egg, are easily lost in a broth teeming with vermicelli, vegetables and more meat than you might expect for a dish that will set you back only $7. There is sliced beef, fatty but flavorful; a whole pork knuckle from which you have to gnaw the sparse, rich meat; and some Spam-like pork loaf, which has a texture somewhere between spongy and chewy. The menu on the countertop describes the pork loaf as cinnamon-flavored, but I found the flavor generically porky, which is to say delicious. But the broth is the star here, bright with lemongrass and quite spicy, a definite funk — from the meat, of course, but possibly also from shrimp paste, a traditional ingredient in bun bo Hue — grounding the concoction.
As for the pork blood, the smallest nibble cranks up the funk factor. It's an acquired taste, which is a gentle way of saying I didn't love it. The flavor is very intense, with such a mineral kick that, were it not for the yielding texture, I might think I was eating a rock. The closest approximation that comes to mind is one of those heavy-duty multivitamins that turns your pee orange.
3723 Gravois Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63116
Region: St. Louis - Tower Grove
Sometimes you hear of the Vietnamese or Chinese or Thai restaurant that has one menu for public consumption and another "secret" menu that contains the authentic dishes. Phuc Loi's menu makes no such distinction, with dishes like bun bo Hue, soups with pork liver and congee (rice porridge) with "pork innards" listed along with more familiar fare like pho, banh mi sandwiches and spring rolls.
I don't know how many times I'd driven past Phuc Loi before I decided, on a whim, to try it. The restaurant is easy to miss — a nondescript storefront in a small retail strip at the corner of Gravois and South Spring avenues, a stone's throw from another Vietnamese restaurant, Truc Lam, and several other Vietnamese businesses. The restaurant refers to itself as "Vietnamese food to go," which is both why I avoided it for so long and why I finally gave into curiosity: I imagined premade, shrink-wrapped spring rolls. But while Phuc Loi's size and layout — the photo menu on the walls, orders taken at the counter — lend it the appearance of a carryout joint, there is seating for about 40 in the bright, sparsely decorated dining room, and on my visits diners seemed evenly split between eating in and carrying out.
Besides the menu, written and photographic, behind the counter is a small buffet of hot foods from which you can assemble or augment your meal. Another patron, spotting me studying the selections, pointed to what appeared to be hunks of pork belly and hard-boiled eggs in a thin brown sauce slicked with grease and said, "That's about the fattiest thing you can ever eat." I wish she'd mentioned this a few minutes sooner — I'd already ordered a different pork dish, ribs hacked into individual pieces bobbing in yet another thin (though not especially greasy) brown sauce. The meat wasn't as tender as, say, smoked pork ribs can be, but it had a pleasing sweetness rounded out by the pork's natural gaminess and just a hint of heat from the sauce.
Steam-table food usually tastes better than it looks, but there is one visually striking dish on Phuc Loi's buffet: the chicken legs and thighs. These look almost exactly like Indian tandoori chicken, the brick-red exterior slashed with thick black grill marks. The meat is moist and wonderfully flavorful — though I can only imagine how much better it would have been had it been freshly grilled hot rather than steam-table lukewarm.
From the photo menu, the employee who took my order recommended No. 23, com bo luc lac. This is fairly conventional: strips of seasoned, sautéed beef served with rice, with a small container of nuoc cham, the omnipresent Vietnamese condiment, sweet and fish-saucy and mildly spicy. I was struck — like, literally put down my fork and stared at it — by the quality of the beef: The perfectly browned strips of meat were tender and still even pink at the center, and their natural flavor was amped up by an aggressive dose of black pepper.
It is the rare Vietnamese restaurant where I don't try the pho, the beef noodle soup that might as well be Vietnam's national dish — and I certainly will go back to Phuc Loi and try its version — but inspired by my experience with the bun bo Hue, I opted for another soup I'd never had before, bun mang vit. This brings a soup much like pho, the broth's anise-like sweetness balanced by a lingering earthy note. In place of pho's various beef cuts were duck (a leg and a thigh) and bamboo shoots. The duck imbued the soup with a much more succulent quality than pho has. On the side was a very small container of a ginger-based condiment. I wasn't sure whether to add this to the soup or dip pieces of duck in it, and I'd gotten the soup to go so I couldn't ask. I went with the latter, and the salty, ginger-bright condiment gave the meat a lovely spark.
For all this talk of the new and different, I must admit that my favorite dish at Phuc Loi — the reason I'll be returning, on my own dime, frequently — is the banh mi. This sandwich has become exceptionally trendy in New York City of late, but its appeal is simple and universal. Banh mi are delicious and shockingly cheap. At Phuc Loi $3.50 scores you the banh mi dac biet, which layers ham, headcheese and pâté on a crusty baguette with cucumber, pickled daikon, carrot and a bracing quantity of raw jalapeño. Phuc Loi then adds a masterstroke: one whole fried egg, the white adding yet another savory note to all that pork, while the yolk — liquid, but not runny — contributes a fatty richness that even the finest mayonnaise couldn't provide.
And it's only $3.50.
When the little voice inside your head asks if, at that price, shouldn't you order two — and if you're like me, that little voice is always asking you things — say yes.