Tran Anh Nguyet won't sell you a bowl of bun bo cay (spicy beef rice noodle soup) without watching you taste a small serving of the broth, first.
It's that spicy.
To face her challenge, you'll have to head to Bac Lieu Province, 280 km (174 miles) south of Ho Chi Minh City.
While Central Vietnam typically holds title as the spiciest region in the country, Bac Lieu has become notorious throughout the Mekong Delta for its exquisitely potent broth.
“It's so spicy, I feel like I lost my tongue,” Cong, a tourist from Ho Chi Minh City said about his first bowl.
“My wife just cried while sweat just poured down my face.”
Though all of this may sound like recollections of torture, they were spoken with a certain watery-mouthed masochistic fondness, as though they couldn't wait to have another.
Trien, a tourist from Can Tho City, says he always eats a bowl of bun bo cay as his first meal in Bac Lieu.
“It may sound weird but a ‘spicy’ bowl is so spicy that I can't taste the spicy anymore,” he said. “In a minute or two, the heat spreads from your stomach down to your toes and fingertips until, finally, your brain sort of explodes.”
“Anh Nguyet is where this food comes from. There’s another restaurant in Ca Mau Province copying the dish but they can't match her bowl of bun bo cay,” he added.
The namesake proprietor of this spicy noodle spot, said her grandfather invented bun bo cay and opened the restaurant in Bac Lieu before passing it to her father in the 1970s.
She's heard it said that her grandfather and an ethnic Chinese cook conspired to invent a breakfast that would bust up hangovers for officials in the former southern regime.
Nguyet guessed that the hot chilies make people sweat out the previous night's alcohol.
Beyond its curative properties, she says its just a really good dish.
“You'll never get bored of eating it,” she said proudly. “I have been eating it since I was a small child.”
She hesitates to talk about her cooking process—a family secret: “Of course we are very choosy in buying beef. After that, we marinate it in chilies and other ingredients, then wait several hours for the meat to the absorb spices.”
She serves the soup with sweet basil a favorite accompaniment of southern pho (beef noodle), youtiao (savory crullers) and a small bowl of chili salt and lime juice for flavoring the thick slices of beef.
Nguyen The Nghia, a 59-year-old Bac Lieu local, said he has been eating bun bo cay at Anh Nguyet's restaurant two or three times a week since it opened 36 years ago.
“There is no place that sell bun bo cay that's this special. After e big night of drinking I wake up and eat two bowls.”
Nghia said his son, living in Australia, insists on having bun bo cay the minute he gets back to Bac Lieu.
“I totally agree with him and his friends abroad who say ‘you haven't really been to Bac Lieu if you haven't had a bowl of bun bo cay.”
Bun bo cay Anh Nguyet 119 Cao Van Lau Street, Ward 5, Bac Lieu Town, Bac Lieu Province
Open: 5 am – around 9:30 am Price: VND30,000 (less than US$1.50) per bowl Phone: 0917.449.998
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