I first noticed this joint, Quan Co Tam – Banh Canh Trang Bang at 188 Nguyen Van Thu street in District 1, because of the difficulty I had negotiating my way past it one evening. A mob of noodle fans had spilled out of the restaurant and were lining the pavement – 10 slurpers deep, 10 wide – faces bent bowlwards. I saw there was only dish on the conveyer belt – always a good sign – Banh Canh (Pork and udon style noodle soup) and I made a mental note to return one day. There’s not an awful lot to a Banh Canh. Some come with shrimp, crab, chicken, a pork hock or a combination effort, but that’s about all the variation. A takeaway for 2 costs 20,000VD for the standard Banh Canh with thin slivers of boiled pork, fat trimmed off. Many Vietnamese seem to like fatty meats, but in general it’s a no-no for me.
The waitress bagged up the soup, noodles and pork with a dash of spring onions, lettuce, beansprouts. I also scored a Banh trang phoi suong (literally means "rice pancake exposed in the dew (at night)" which is a boiled pork/rice paper herb wrap number. It comes with a mountain of herbs including a long fragrant, glossy green leaf herb which I don’t know the name of in any language (I did ask, but no-one seemed to know and it’s not here). UPDATE: I blogged that dish here. Apparently, it is quite special and peculiar to this dish. You also get a small bag of freshly chopped red chilies, sliced lemon and a bag of unadulterated nuoc mam (fish sauce). You can add the chili and lemon to taste and whack the fish sauce in a small dish for dipping. Banh Canh doesn’t require a souped up nuoc mam, so you won’t find any chili, carrot or whatever in with it. You dip the pork into the sauce as you eat, that’s all. Not sure how these quirks of taste develop for some soups and not others, but there you go.
After a disappointing Hu Tiu some time ago I was wary of this dish as it is quite similar, just simpler. But, I needn’t have worried. It’s this simplicity that is Banh Canh‘s strength. it’s a clear soup and has a purity other Vietnamese soups like Pho bo or Banh canh cua lack. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of Banh canh experience, but even I could tell this restaurant’s popularity stems from a three pronged attack on the taste buds. First up there’s the tenderness of the pork, then, the quality of the broth, which is both meaty and ever so slightly aromatic and lastly there’s the freshness of the noodles. Put the lot together and you have one of the simplest Vietnamese soups out there, yet one of the best and, total guesswork here, probably one of the hardest to replicate on the stove back home.