The conundrum of ordering at Bong Lua is whether to get the last thing you really liked, or go down the list of its unique or less commonly seen noodles in the GTA.
The requisite special beef pho, with the usual beef balls, tendon, tripe, brisket and slices of rare beef, can be found at the top of the menu like at most pho places. But the appeal of Quy Huang Dang’s menu comes from entries like the rare beef brisket pho in a tom yum broth; shrimp, crab and Vietnamese sausage with udon in a thick egg-drop soup; and a vegetarian pho where crunchy bamboo shoots swim in a mushroom-anise broth.
Throughout the last 19 months (and counting) of the pandemic, Bong Lua has been a favourite nearby takeout spot for my family. My mom’s Vietnamese friend introduced her to the place years ago. The restaurant itself, sitting at the corner of Huntingwood Drive and Birchmount Road, is in Huntingwood Square, a plaza with other takeout heavy hitters like Chris Jerk and Wei’s Taiwanese Food. Every time I visit, I make sure to try out a new dish as a way to stave off takeout fatigue, as well as play catch-up in a world of noodles and broths beyond the ubiquitous rare beef pho.
Quy Huang Dang (or Jimmy, to staff and regulars) arrived in Canada in 1990, working odd jobs at factory assembly lines. Before that, he lived in Hong Kong, picking up Cantonese along the way, much like many others who fled Vietnam as refugees after the war. Here in Toronto, when he found out his neighbourhood Vietnamese restaurant, Pho 33, was up for sale, he opted to take over in 2011 and renamed it Bong Lua (named after the flowering part of the rice plant) to keep the restaurant going for the regulars. He had never owned a restaurant or worked in a professional kitchen before. “I’m the oldest child of five, so back home I did a lot of cooking and learned from mom,” Dang said.
Over time, he added more and more to the menu, and the restaurant became known in food circles for its variety of pho. Most of the pho dishes start with either a base of chicken or beef bone stock. The part that makes pho a time-consuming dish are the hours of simmering required in order to draw out the flavours from the bones and properly highlight signature spices like star anise.
For seafood pho, dried seafood such as octopus and shrimp, or pastes, are added to boost the umami richness. The bun rieu, a favourite of a fellow foodie friend and Yelpers alike, starts with chicken stock simmered with tomatoes and pungent house-made crab paste. The little claws and shells of a whole blue crab peek out from a thick, opaque soup. The best way to enjoy this dish is to get your hands dirty cracking the shells and sucking the juice out. I recommend taking this, as well as the banh canh cua — udon noodles with shrimp, whole crab and Vietnamese sausage in a thick and silky egg drop soup — home to enjoy in all its messy glory.
There’s also the bun ca bong lua, or fish vermicelli, that Dang says is from his hometown of Haiphong, a coastal city in northeastern Vietnam. Seafood in that region is a huge part of the diet. “I can eat three bowls of this,” he said. “I brought it on the menu after a few years of opening and my staff loved it.”
The pho menu caps out at dish number 126: pho ca ri de, a curry goat pho popular in the central and southern parts of Vietnam, with historical influences from Malaysian and Indian traders (other dishes influenced by the country’s Southeast Asian neighbours include the satay beef pho and the laksa pho). The vegetarian pho, made of a mushroom broth and simmered with star anise to give it that distinctive flavour of pho, comes topped with tofu, vegetables, and crispy bamboo shoots, ensuring it has as much texture to play with as its beef pho counterpart.
But it wasn’t until I interviewed him after eating there all those years, that he told me there’s an unlisted item number 127: mam tom de, or goat pho, with a fermented shrimp paste broth. It’s particularly popular with in-the-know diners from Southeast Asia, he says. The week after we spoke I came back to try it (the restaurant is open for limited indoor seating but I opted for one of the two small tables on the sidewalk). The broth is still clear and light tasting, but with a slight fermented richness from the paste that adds another layer of aroma and saltiness to the fall-off-the-bone goat.
There are other dishes he’s interested in adding, like a curry fish with steamed rice. But with the business taking a hit during the pandemic (in particular the lunch crowd that prefers to dine in rather than try to take hot soup to go) and Dang having to be the cook, dishwasher and all the roles in between, he’s going to wait before adding more items. Still, the sheer variety of the menu is enough to keep diners like myself coming back for a new noodle experience every time. With all of the different flavour and ingredient combos, Dang says a good bowl of noodles should always have one common goal.
“It should remind me of my childhood when mom would give me money to eat at the corner stalls,” he said. “The best is the streets, still after many generations. That’s what I’m trying to create. Street food tastes more special and one of a kind, and if you do one thing and do it well, you can survive.”