A few weeks ago, The Bold Italic received an intriguing invitation to a dinner party. Hung Lam, a home chef, wrote to us explaining that he was planning a pop-up dinner in October and that he was looking for guinea pigs to try his recipe for Bun Rieu, a tomato-based seafood soup with rice noodles, and give him feedback. "Our goal, " he wrote, "is to get as much feedback on how to better the product before the pop up." Always up for a culinary adventure, I accepted the invitation. Hung invited me over to join him, his girlfriend Annie, and friend Kat in his downtown apartment last Friday. I brought along my friends and longtime eating companions Phillip Maisel, Justine Sharrock, and N.W. Smith.
To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect. Hung's original e-mail explained, "I have not cooked professionally in a restaurant, but I have been cooking for 20 years. All the recipes are from my grandfather and mom. I am 34 years old. My background is Chinese/Vietnamese and I have yet to find a very good restaurant that serves really good Vietnamese/Chinese noodle soup." It sounded promising, but part of me was ready to enjoy a delicious, authentic, but humble and homey meal. Little did I know we were going to get a whole lot more.
Upon exiting the elevator to the 20th floor in Hung's apartment building, we were hit by a fragrant smell that I instantly recognized as crab. The scent was so strong that we probably could've followed our noses to his door alone! We knew we had the right apartment, however, when I rang the doorbell and a chorus of doggy barks ensued. Hung had warned us that he and Annie own two shih-tzu puppies.
We entered the apartment, and the first clues to what we were going to experience were right there on the walls of the hallway. What I didn't bother to notice at first, but would later look at in detail, were framed menus, along with photos of Hung, Annie, and Kat, at some of the best restaurants in the country with some of the world's most renowned chefs.
It wasn't until we were asked to help ourselves to a bounty of snacks and drinks that I realized we were amongst some hardcore foodies. What appeared to be simple dried veggie chips were fresh offerings from Calbee San Francisco, the new flagship store of the Japanese company that makes Shrimp Flavored Chips and Snapea Crisps. (Note to self, visit Calbee San Francisco ASAP!). The spread also featured Bronx grapes from the Ferry Building, a hybrid of Concord and Thompson grapes. These were seriously some of the best grapes I've ever had. And finally, nestled in a bucket of ice was a bottle of bubbly, apparently picked out by none other than Mark Bright, a friend of theirs, and oh, the sommelier at Saison. I told you, hardcore foodies.
So at this point, my expectations for the noodle soup were exponentially rising. We were in the company of people who know and love good food. They're the kind of people who travel to new places just to try the cuisine. The kind of people I like, but really, I was out of my league here. Luckily, although I haven't been to many of the fancy restaurants of the world, I do love me some Asian comfort food, and really, that's what we were about to grub on. I felt confident in my ability to eat and judge what Hung had to offer.
Before the eating began, we joined Hung in the kitchen and watched him stir in a good helping of bottled Crab Paste with Soya Bean Oil. Although Hung tries to use fresh and local ingredients, he admits that Asian cooking sometimes requires ingredients that aren't. In the end, flavor overcomes all. But he did stress the fact that he doesn't use MSG in any of his food, which he sees as "cheating." All of the dense, rich flavor comes from slow cooking using the best ingredients. For his Bun Rieu, a recipe he learned from his mother, Hung labored over the broth for more than four hours.
While Hung finished the stock, Annie and Kat prepared gigantic bowls with all the other ingredients, including the rice noodles, bean sprouts, fresh peeled tomatoes, pork meatballs, shredded ong choy (water spinach), and huge pieces of omelet made with large chunks of crab meat.
When the bowls were prepped, Hung ladled in the soup, and we were asked to sit down at a window-side table with an amazing view of downtown. It almost felt like we were at some chichi high rise restaurant, rather than a stranger's apartment.
A bottle of fancy wine (sorry, I didn't pay attention, since I don't drink), also handpicked by Mark Bright, was opened and poured, but I was already digging into my bowl. I started by dunking my soup spoon into the bright red-orange broth. I was expecting it to be spicy, because being Korean, red equals hot pepper to me. It turns out the vivid color was from the tomato. The soup wasn't spicy, but it was very flavorful, spiked by the pungent seafood flavors of crab and shrimp, but also sweet from the tomato. Next, I picked up some noodles, bean sprouts, a meatball, and that beautifully curled water spinach, and gathered it all on my spoon before dipping it once more into the soup. It was a mouthful, but the crispness of the vegetables, the springiness of the rice noodles, the soft meatiness of the pork, and the rich broth were really great together. And finally, I tried a morsel of the crab omelette, which was decadently almost more crab than egg. It was delicious too!
Halfway into my bowl, I was starting to feel really full. Being a member of the clean plate club, I rarely leave food on my plate, especially when it's amazing and I'm a guest at someone's house. But these were ginormous servings! I gave my two cents: Be less generous with portions. I couldn't imagine anyone being able to completely finish this extra-large serving. Annie and Kat laughed and explained that these were the portions they — two very skinny girls — ate all the time. And, they added, they sometimes even could eat another helping. They didn't, however, tell me the secret of where they keep their extra stomachs.
Admittedly, I (barely) spared a little room for dessert, as Kat had made something special for us. After we finished eating, she brought out little bowls of grapefruit and champagne granita topped with fresh longan (a tropical fruit from the Southeast that looks and tastes similar to lychee) and a plate of Alfajores de dulce de leche (caramel sandwich cookies). I was too full for baked goods, but the icy, fruity granita was perfectly refreshing, and I almost found myself wanting another serving!
Finally, to cap off the night, Hung brought out a large bottle of Kokuryu Black Dragon sake, a Junmai Ginjo from the Fukui Prefecture of Japan. As I mentioned, I don't normally drink, but maybe all that food had gotten to my head, and I said to hell with it and decided to try the sake. Usually, I can't drink more than a thimble full of any alcohol, so I was surprised that this sake was so smooth that I was able to enjoy two tiny boot-shaped glasses full.
The food and drinks were great, but it was getting to know Hung, Annie, and Kat made the experience awesome. These people have a serious love affair with food. When I asked Hung, a general contractor by profession, why he doesn't just open a real deal restaurant, he explained that he's pretty happy keeping his career and having food as his passion. After we all offered our feedback and patted our extended bellies, Hung surprised us by saying, "This isn't even the best soup I make." Say what?! He said he'd invite us over the next time he made his favorite dish, and the next time he barbecues, and the next time he ... Um, did he want us to become permanent guests in his house, or what?
Follow Hung on Twitter @SoupJunkieSF to find out if and when in October his pop up will go live. In the meantime, maybe you can convince him to invite you to his next test dinner?