Mai Lee's Bun Bo Hue
For some time now, I have been attempting to do the impossible: eat every single item on Mai Lee's menu. That's 202 menu items, plus the Chinese menu. I've had a fair amount, but I'm still nowhere near done. At the current pace I'm going, I should finish when I'm 35. I have two favorite dishes at Mai Lee, and the weather dictates which I'm ordering any given day.
Warm days call for the crepes (#54) filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. Cooler days require a big bowl of #17, bun bo hue (boon bo hway). What is this mysterious soup and why you should stray from your usual bowl of pho? Think of it like this: pho is Vietnamese soup on Rookie mode, bun bo hue is when you turn it up to Pro. The anchovy based bun nuoc leo, #21, is dialed all the way to All Star. I haven't even gotten there yet.
The way I've been getting through the menu is by letting Qui pick for me. A few months back, we were going through the menu and he was naming dishes he was sure I'd tried, and when he said #17, I was all like, "I have not tried that."
And he was all, "What?"
And I was like, "Yeah. No idea what that is."
He disappeared to the kitchen and returned shortly with a bowl that smelled like Christmas (in Southeast Asia). The light beef broth is heavily scented with lemongrass, the smell and taste I equate most with SEA eating, but is complimented by the wintry mix of cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. Oh, and annatto seed and fresh pineapple, as well. Add the fire of chilies and tender slices of meat to that, and you've got yourself one of the finest bowls of soup that you'll ever eat. You've also got a pantry worth of ingredients, liquified.
If you don't eat beef, you can request a chicken version instead. I'm guess Qui's team can even pull together a vegetarian option (but I can't promise anything).
I hate to say it, but I don't think I'll be going back to pho any time soon.