Obao Packs a Punch and I Am Still an Idiot

You know those beautiful moments when it suddenly dawns on you that you are 5’8 and walk very quickly, able to cross avenues in mere minutes to those short people who take 20 minutes to walk from 5th to 2nd Avenue? No? Well, whatever, my office sits smack in the middle – not quite west, and not really east either – of midtown. Low 50s and Madison, to be exact – and when I finally figured out that I can walk to Obao in approximately 8 minutes, I hurried over to get my pho on. Pho, on a snowy day – of which we had way too many the past 6 weeks – is amazing. Michelin recommended pho isn’t really something that even crosses my radar normally, so this was even more exciting!

Obao has a nifty lunch special, though for some reason the price isn’t on the menu that they give you to browse. It’s $8 and includes a “chef’s appetizer of the day” – the first time I went, I wanted to eat more things so they actually forgot to give me the chef’s appetizer, and I didn’t feel like asking about it – I’d over-ordered as it was, so I contented myself with eating these:


Pork belly grilled on sugar cane… which was $8 itself. Oops! If you go and split these with a few people, though, I will say that it tasted more like bacon – slightly smoky, and thinly sliced, wrapped around the sugar cane. Had I more time or more interest in dirtying myself, I would have been very happy chewing on the sugar cane (if you chew on it – don’t try to eat it, it’s extremely fibrous and I don’t see how you could really chew through it – it releases this wonderful sugar cane juice that’s slightly sweet and very refreshing). As it was, I nommed away on each slice of pork belly that’d been rolled around the sugar cane and thought it was very tasty. I was very happy with it, though it shoots you right over the ML “limit” of $10 with your other dish.


My first time there, I chose the pho bo – your standard beef pho. Plenty of noodles, broth that was rich but not cloying, and beef that was satisfactory (sorry, the beef in pho is never the focus for me – it’s all about the broth and noodles. Actually, everything is…). I was happy with my bowl, and completely stuffed at the end of it all. I waddled my way back to the office and felt very warmed to the core from the soup. Perfect on the snowy day I tromped over, and service was quick – until I wanted my check (I sat at the bar that day). Not sure why it took so long to get my check and run my card.

Then, last week, I returned. I’ve heard the bun bo hue is really good, and I’ve often searched for this on other menus across the city but don’t often see it. I’m not sure why. I’m not even really sure what it was, I just knew they had it on the menu here and I wanted to try it.

I ignored the notation on the menu that said “usually served spicy.” I obviously did not learn my lesson from Jerk Pan. I mean, come on – this place caters to plenty of non-Asians, and the American palate is notoriously not particularly spicy. Pfft. Come on!

This time, with no appetizer order to distract them, I received my “chef’s appetizer” quickly. It was a small “cake” of some sort – I heard her tell someone else it was chicken, but it tasted vaguely fishy to me, almost like a Thai shrimp cake. The slightly sweet, very very slightly spicy chili sauce on top was good, and no indication of what was to come.

The first thing I noticed when the bowl came was that though the bowl was rather large, it seemed very empty. I swiped my chopsticks through the bowl and noted with disappointment that there didn’t seem to be that many noodles. I LOVE NOODLES, so this was very disappointing to me. I also noted that they’d given me a small container (in the top left of the first pic, the small metal ramekin) of hot chili paste. It looked really interesting, but I could smell the broth and it smelled spicy-ish, so I decided to try it before adding anything further.

I began to eat, and delightedly noted – which further increased my disappointment – that the noodles were drastically different from the noodles in pho, which are slightly flat. These were round, almost like spaghetti, but exhibited such a springiness to them that I fell in love immediately and wanted more. As is my preference, I sipped from the soup as I took mouthfuls of noodles, occasionally spooling noodles onto the spoon with soup and putting the whole thing in my mouth. The heat was noticeable, and initially caused a light sweat to break out across my nose. I soldiered on – I don’t hate spicy foods, I just find it difficult to enjoy my food when my face is on fire – and enjoyed my first ever bowl of bun bo hue… as the heat grew. And grew.

And grew.

Eventually, I was pouring sweat, and needed to take breaks between mouthfuls because I was so uncomfortable. At this point, I was almost thankful there were so few noodles – which were topped with really, really tender brisket slices, and quite delicious – because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to actually finish, and I hate wasting food. This didn’t really detract from my enjoyment, but I was really questioning my dedication to finishing this lunch.

When I finished my noodles, I put my chopsticks down and leaned back. Then I saw it.

The chili paste they’d given to me on the side called my name. Determined to try it, I grabbed the metal ramekin and dumped all of it into my soup, stirring it vigorously. The soup took on an angry red color and warned me of the impending pain I was going to inflict upon myself. I took my spoon, dipped it in, and sipped.

Oh my gosh.

Intense fire spread through my mouth, but behind it, I could taste something smoky, wonderful, lovely. Behind the heat, there was a depth of flavor that I desperately wished I could capture on my tongue to explore more fully. If I had a higher heat tolerance, I could easily drink the whole bowl of soup – it was so beautiful!! But then my face erupted in flames and I had to stop, sigh. But not before I consumed a good 3-4 spoonfuls of the amazing soup.


This won’t stop me from ordering it again, and using a little of the chili paste from the start. In fact, it encourages me to increase my tolerance to spice so that I can enjoy the bowl without crying hysterically the whole time!!

Flame me all you want. The soup already did it for you, and I’m impervious to your mocking!

When I was getting up to leave, I noticed this on every table. Early bird special that seems totally great – $11 for your choice of appetizer and entree with a soda. Just get there before 6:30pm, which may be a little difficult for some of you, or just slip out of the office for a quick dinner and then head back. And for those of you who aren’t going back to the office – $16 for a pitcher of Sapporo AND a carafe of sake. Whaaaaaat? Yeah, get it! I know some of you are lushes! I’d even start organizing happy hours again if y’all were into that… remember those?

In any case, the bottom line here is that the $8 lunch special at Obao is completely worth it for all but the biggest eaters. There are other options available, so have fun exploring the rest of the lunch menu. This place deserves a spot in your rotation, too – and there’s a location on the west side, too! (I’m not sure if the lunch menu varies there, though, nor if the happy hour special is good there.)

The best part? Even sitting down to eat, this comes in just at the $10 ML “limit” – with tax, the $8 pho/bun bo hue clocks in at $8.71. You COULD leave $10, which is just under 15% for tip - so please don’t. If you really want to throw some change down with it to hit 15%, by all means, but will it really kill you to leave another $1? Okay, I’ll stop telling you how to spend your money now.

Just go eat there. It’s awesome.

Obao, 222 E. 53rd St. (btw. 3+2nd), (212) 308-5588


  • I used to go to Obao like 2-3 times a week but lately I have been avoiding the restaurant because of their access use of MSG. I don’t really mind eating MSG but not when they put too much to the point, I get dehydrated all day and leaves me with bloated belly. I wish they’d stop putting too much msg, I’d return there again.
    As for Bun bo hue..it’s one of those dishes at Obao that changed a lot in last few years. It has less noodle(all broken up too) and less everything. As for its noodle, I ask for the flat rice noodle instead of the flour noodle that’s usually served with Bun bo hue. I hate that white spagetti noodle they use in Bun bo hue.

    • Broken bun!? Sounds like they pre-cooked it. If that’s true then that’s really sad because even the shittiest, run-down, hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Vietnam know they have to cook it to order.

      Good on you for switching out the noodle. I also prefer chewier noodles for my soups (even if it’s not “authentic”). A couple of people I’ve met over there do it as well.

      • Unfortunately, I believe all their noodle is precooked..but I don’t really mind because I know I am not in Vietnam and the flat rice noodle still tastes pretty good in broth.
        by the way, they should really bottle that sauce that comes with bun bo hue…it’s so so good. I think it’s the best tasting condiment I’ve ever had.

  • Fusion restaurants are the worst.

  • They’re the worst because they don’t focus on making amazing food. They’re just cashing on uncultured white people.

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    That’s rice noodle in the bun Bo hue, not flour like pasta.

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    This is some A+ charming-as-hell content. Keep it up!

    • Thank you… but you find it charming when I bring bodily harm to myself? You also liked watching Jackass, didn’t you?

      PS I do write about non-ML meals on my own site… ;)

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        Already a long time FF reader!

        Your exploration of the limits of your spice tolerance is endearing; reminds of when I was a wee lad who found kimchi painfully hot.


  • I hit this place last friday and it was jam packed for lunch. I had the Singapore Laksa. They put all of the spicy stuff on a plate on the side. The soup was pretty bland and uninteresting until I added the spicy stuff. Then I squeezed in the lemon and the flavor exploded. Overall I enjoyed it, though not as much as some other options in that neighborhood.

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