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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Hue Funky

June 15, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

All Gaul may have been divided into three parts. Into three parts are Vietnamese noodle soups divided also, spheres of pasta influence that roughly coincide with the country's geography. The hot south, the part of Vietnam anchored by the former Saigon, is the land of hu tieu , starch noodles served in a bland clear broth sometimes enriched with crab or chicken.

The cool north, centered around Hanoi, is famous for pho , chewy rice noodles garnished with a kind of herbed beef salad and served in a clear, complex beef consomme that is heady with cinnamon and clove. Pho is universally admired and probably the Vietnamese dish that has traveled best to the United States. Except for maybe the squiggles of boiled tripe that usually manage to make it into the bowl, pho is fairly user-friendly.

The noodle of choice in central Vietnam, near the port city of Hue, tends to be bun bo hue : pale spaghetti-size rice noodles in a musky soup made from simmered cow parts and pigs' feet and dyed a bright red with chiles; a spicy, powerfully animal broth that is sometimes too pungent to eat. I have never encountered a bowl of pho that I wasn't able somehow to finish. I have never seen the bottom of a bowl of bun bo hue .

So a newish, decent bun bo hue specialty restaurant in Rosemead may not be cause for celebration on the order of a place that serves perfect scallion pancakes or even a definitive version of the Vietnamese hoagies called banh mi , but Hong Ngu is a friendly place, decorated with Santa wrapping paper and glass Christmas-tree balls, fragrant with garlic and French-drip coffee, a radio blasting the new station that plays Lyle Lovett all the time. The woman who seems to run the restaurant will help you pick your way through the menu, but may also try to line up a career for you teaching English in Saigon. "You can make $20,000 in one year," she says. "And in Vietnam, it is so cheap to live!"

It is also cheap to lunch on Hong Ngu's bun bo hue , flavored with sharp Vietnamese herbs, served without the additions of chewy curdled blood and chopped pigs trotters that represent the height of generosity at other bun bo hue parlors. The broth is rich, focused, only slightly gamy, with a smoky chile heat and an elusive tartness that you may amplify with a squeeze of lime or a few torn up leaves of basil. Bun bo hue . . . it's not so bad.

Hong Ngu also serves the usual array of hieu tu noodles and a pretty good bowl of pho , a crisp version of the Vietnamese spring rolls called cha gio that are a little to mushy inside and a better-than-average rendition of chao tom , pounded shrimp paste formed around a length of sugar cane, fried and taken off, ready to be wrapped into a disk of rice paper with pickled bean sprouts and herbs. Goi cuon , rice-paper rolls filled with pork, shrimp, chewy rice noodles and greens, tend to be better than bi cuon , essentially the same thing but with chewy stewed pig skin substituting for the pork and shrimp.

But mostly, there is Hong Ngu's barbecued pork: distinctly homemade-tasting slivers of pig, marinated in a zillion spices, threaded onto skewers and grilled. They're served with herbs on the tiny rice noodles called banh hoi , or with sweet fish sauce in a bowl of larger rice noodles (or rice). The pork noodle special, served with a giant heap of greens and vegetables, fresh bun noodles, enough skewered pork to be wrapped into half a dozen fat lettuce leaf rolls, would seem to be the way to go.

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What to Get:

Recommended dishes: Bun bo hue dac biet, bun thit nuong dac biet.

Where to Go:

Hong Ngu Restaurant, 9014 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (818) 307-5298. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$14.

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