Few Americans envision a savory bowl of soup as a breakfast treat, but especially in blazing hot areas like Vietnam, hot dishes like pho are traditionally eaten before the sun begins to beat mercilessly. If you're looking to share in this phenomenon on a drizzly morning, head to the south side of Seattle, where there's an Asian noodle destination that will have you hankering for broth at brunch.
Drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Way, or, better yet, take the light rail to Othello Station to find plenty of off-the-radar establishments within walking distance. There are some especially assertive Vietnamese bowls to try, plus one spot serving Lao and Thai specialties, fragrant and flavorful, some downright funky.
Directly at Othello Station, on the west side of MLK, Cafe Huong Que serves up some delicious bo kho. Commonly referred to as Vietnamese beef stew and served with baguette, Huong Que calls its version a soup and serves it with two types of noodles: hu tieu bo kho with wide rice noodles and mi bo kho with thin egg noodles.
The thick soup, with a tinge of red color from annatto seeds, contains beef chunks, potatoes, onions and carrots. It's topped with Thai basil, which, combined with the lemongrass, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and other spices in the soup, makes it super-fragrant.
Pink salt, chili peppers and lime allow you to customize the flavor to your liking, and while there are noodles, you can (and should) get a baguette to sop up all the sauce at the end. That baguette comes standard if you opt instead for bo ne (steak and eggs), another popular breakfast order at Huong Que. The dish comes to the table still sizzling on a cast iron griddle with lots of butter.
Just a couple of doors down is Hoang Lan, but the words "Bun Bo Hue" are more prominent on the storefront sign, and rightly so. While there are many more items on the menu, this meaty soup (made with both beef and pork) with soft rice vermicelli noodles is the restaurant's specialty.
With cha lua (Vietnamese pork roll, like a sausage loaf), pork blood cubes, and a ham hock floating in it, the bun bo hue has a deep, hearty broth, extra full of flavor with fermented shrimp paste and loads of lemongrass. As in bo kho, brick-red annatto seeds impart a passionate glow to the broth here.
Like pho, bun bo hue comes with bean sprouts, jalapeños, and lime to add to the bowl, but the big difference is the thin slices of banana blossoms, which add color and a vegetal character reminiscent of artichoke. The perfect accompaniment to that bowl of bun bo hue is a dish of banh bọt lọc tran. These shrimp and pork tapioca dumplings come 20 to an order, and are delicious with the nuoc cham dipping sauce.
In the strip mall just around the corner from Hoang Lan is Tammy's Deli & Bakery. At first glance, this looks like a typical Vietnamese deli with a steam table of prepared food (a box of two or three items plus a side of rice is an absolute bargain), a large selection of banh mi sandwiches, and lots of pre-packaged treats from croissants to spring rolls to neon-colored desserts.
But notice the men ordering rounds of Vietnamese coffee to drink at a small seating area where they watch DVDs of Vietnamese pop performances, and you'll realize there are other dining options. One menu shows the dac biet, or special: bun mam.
Order and pay at the counter and a worker will soon bring a bowl with a slightly murky broth that's full of cha lua, barbecue pork, shrimp, chunks of Asian eggplant, and rice vermicelli noodles. The broth is lip-smackingly salty and heady from fermented shrimp paste, fish paste, and fish. A side plate offers lettuce, lime, bean sprouts, Thai basil, mint, Chinese chives, and chili peppers to further jazz up the soup.
A brisk 10-minute walk up MLK is Vientiane Asian Grocery Store. Walk in and find a few tables in the front of the store, which indeed contains several aisles of Asian groceries. There are a number of Lao and Thai dishes on the menu, including a selection of khao poun noodle soups in beef, chicken, and fish varieties.
Especially delicious is the khao poun nam poan, with pork intestines and other pork pieces interspersed among rice vermicelli noodles. The bowl exudes an offal smell that's at once funky and seductive. The soup comes with a side dish containing lettuce, bean sprouts, purple and green cabbage shreds, cilantro, mint, carrot, lime and chili peppers.
As the restaurant is based in a grocery store, the cooks in the kitchen will continually come out to grab ingredients to fulfill orders like green papaya salad, larb, and grilled or fried chicken. A specialty of the house and tempting side dish is Lao sausage, which you can have the kitchen cook for just two dollars extra or choose to bring home in the package — because at this point, you're likely hooked on Asian-style breakfasts, and you're going to want to take some of that essence home with you.