Drive far enough east on the San Gabriel Valley thoroughfares of Valley Boulevard and Garvey Avenue, and you’ll see Chinese restaurants slowly give way to Vietnamese ones. Aside from the occasional recommendation for a well-known dish such as pho, these places serving the local community rarely receive mention. Some of this is simply due to them being further east, while some of it might be the perception that the SGV Vietnamese scene lacks the depth and breadth of O.C.’s “Little Saigon.” While that’s somewhat true, some regional specialties turn up in the SGV if one knows what they’re looking for and where to find them.
Which brings us to bun ca, a fish noodle soup that’s popular along the Central Vietnamese coast but that’s a rare find on SGV menus. The basic dish is thin, vermicelli rice noodles, fish, chopped herbs, scallions, and large sections of tomato in a what is usually, but not always, a fish broth. As one might expect, there are many variations based on the type of fish or broths or seasonings used. While we’re only aware of three restaurants in the 626 serving bun ca, each one features a distinct version.
Pho Ga Bac Ninh is a warm, cozy-to-cramped, restaurant located in a Monterey Park strip mall that one could easily miss were they not looking for it. You might feel out of place ordering bun ca, considering every table seems to be topped with pho ga or some other chicken dish. But, the bun ca is what you’re having. The version here features a mild, yellow-tinted broth in a silver bowl filled with chopped celery, scallions, and herbs, most notably sprigs of dill. Small chunks of whitefish bob alongside grilled fishcake patties, a unique twist here. The patties are more heavily seasoned, coming off like a fishy Jimmy Dean sausage patty, which is a good thing. A fairly spartan plate of accoutrements is provided (shredded lettuce, thinly sliced jalapeños, and a lime wedge), but there are tabletop caddies of additional condiments should you wish to add them.
Our favorite version has to be the bun ca served at the recently opened Red 9 Vietnamese Kitchen. The bun ca here is sort of the spiritual successor to the late Quan Mien Trung, which was located mere blocks away. Located in a standalone building, Red 9 is a comfortable restaurant with booths and AC. Their version has a richer broth that stains the bowl a golden hue from the turmeric, with a variety of herbs and spices coming through, slices of white onion, and some small chunks of pineapple. It also features chunks of both salmon and whitefish, along with long, thin slices of fishcake, which come off texturally like ham. A plate of various herbs is provided, including basil and mint, as well as bean sprouts and jalapeño slices. The proprietor will tell you any of the herbs go perfectly with the bun ca, but to be sure to add them only after reheating. This is something anyone who has spoiled a decent pho ga by doing the opposite is far too well aware of.
The only other spot serving bun ca that we know of in the area is the unrelated Hai Phong Pho Ga Bac Ninh, located in a newish strip mall that sits perpendicular to traffic in Rosemead. The most notable difference in their version is use of fried fish chunks.
In the midst of a summer of staggering heat, it might seem odd to be going on about a fish soup served scaldingly hot, but it’s truly a dish worth seeking out. If you can’t imagine eating it at this time of year, file this away for the wintertime.
Pho Ga Bac Ninh, 605 N. New Ave., Suite C, Monterey Park
Red 9 Vietnamese Kitchen, 8766 Valley Blvd., Rosemead
Hai Phong Pho Ga Bac Ninh, 8930 Mission Dr., Suite 102, Rosemead
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