Last year, I went on a search for bún riêu, the elusive Vietnamese shrimp, crab, and tomato soup. Every Vietnamese friend I asked said that the only way I would encounter anything approaching what they would sign off on was if their mother made it. A friend finally took pity on me, and we spent a morning cooking and being fed by her friend’s mother-in-law. She set before us a bowl: fluffy crab balled into orbs that barely held together in a sunset-colored soup with vermicelli and fried tofu, the tomato broth sour with tamarind and savory with shrimp paste. It was umami-filled and delicate at once. With its tomatoes, crab, and shrimp paste, it was almost like a tangy Vietnamese bouillabaisse.
This was a high bar to set.
In the past months, I’ve slowly widened my search. I flitted. I spent afternoons landing in strip mall mom-and-pop spots, trying to suss out where the innocent, uninitiated public (read: novice) like me could find more bún riêu—dipping into bowl after bowl. I burned to know.
I’d focused on Vietnamese congee and the light broth of mi quang and the fiery, crimson broth of bun bo hue, aromatic with lemongrass. But this time the intent was laser-focused: find the best bún riêu, with balanced flavor and fluffy crab cakes. And while I didn’t come up with an archetype, here are three highlights: one from a giant palace of sensory overload, one from a family-owned hole-in-the-wall, and once from a rooftop bar in downtown Dallas.
Bistro B makes an intense, seafood-lover’s version with a light crab cake and a broth that’s based on the flavor of crawfish—their twist, plus, of course, tomatoes, pork knuckle, and blood cake.
I found a pork meatball version at family-owned Phuong Nam. It was homey and beautifully executed, with lovely fried tofu, a flurry of fried shallots, and a broth that leans sweeter and more aromatic.
My favorite part: the home-made sausage cake studded with lemongrass stalk and peppercorns big enough that you can see them, and the accompanying mounds of banana blossom and bean sprouts to spread over the surface. The husband-and-wife team in the kitchen are from Central Vietnam, and if you’re lucky and it’s artichoke season, they’ll serve you their home-made elixir made of boiled artichoke leaf, pandan leaf, and sugarcane.
At Sky Blossom Bistro, the rooftop fusion spot nestled in downtown Dallas, there was a bowl with all the usual suspects—and the possibility of accenting it with a cocktail and view.
And now that I’d spent time with the—I’ll say it: hard to find—deliciousness that is bún riêu, it showed up at a pop-up last weekend, executed by the Noodboyz & Thicc Sticcz pop-up at Trinity Cider. They have been among the cohort of Southeast Asian pop-ups revolutionizing and reinvigorating the landscape of late. (If this is not more evidence that bún riêu should be on your radar, I don’t know what is.)