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.