Hai Nam Pho Bistro

Hai Nam Pho Bistro is what happens when ethnic cuisine becomes a victim of excessive "localization." The Vietnamese owners here believe that Vietnamese food must be adjusted to local Hungarian tastes - a reasonable theory that may lead to inventive dishes, but at Hai Nam it simply means they eschew flavorful cuts of meats and avoid traditional Vietnamese dishes they don't deem palatable to Hungarians.

For example, the bun cha, normally a mound of flavorful pork belly, is instead a forlorn-looking bunch of tasteless meat here. Although the menu says pork belly, it turns out Hai Nam only use the lean parts, thereby depriving the flesh of its essence. The spring roll, another Vietnamese staple, lacks the coveted porky flavor and crunchy exterior.

The speciality at Hai Nam is the beef pho, and it's very good indeed. The soup arrives in an aromatic broth with slippery rice noodles, and drizzled with bean sprouts, chives, and cilantro. Both the slow-cooked shanks and the sliced sirloin varieties are tender and perfectly satisfying.

After eating here a few times, however, I began to wonder why Hai Nam enjoys a cult-following among local Hungarians - it's by far the most well-known Vietnamese restaurant in Budapest. My guess is most people only go for the pho soups, which are excellent indeed, and perhaps haven't ventured out to other restaurants that serve better and more interesting Vietnamese food in the city.