In the Tenderloin district of the city is a little gem of a restaurant that seems invariably busy throughout mealtimes. Walking by, it’s a pho restaurant and nothing about it stands out. You do notice that there are a lot of Asian people in there, and while one can imagine their pho to be pretty decent, what one cannot know from the outside looking in is that there’s a secret that only the regulars seem to know about called Ha Nam Ninh.
My friend Will raved about it for weeks and then one day, we finally went here for lunch.
Now I wasn’t too keen on ordering a pho “dry”, as the soup is one of the main things I’m craving when I eat pho — but Will was insistent that this is not optional but a must-try item. Heaving a sigh, I gave up on pho, planned a secret trip to Turtle Tower for after the meal and ordered what he ordered, “25 Dry.”
The 25 Dry
When you go to Ha Nam Ninh – you order the “25 Dry”. Officially, it’s the #25 Hu Tieu Nam Vang – ordered dry, but “25 Dry” will get you the same deal, not to mention I’m not quite sure I can say “Hu Tieu Nam Vang” without butchering it.
It’s easy to say it’s a bowl if pho without the beef broth, and you wouldn’t be completely inaccurate. But it’s a lot more than that, because once you remove the soup, you create different entity altogether.
This adequately portioned bowl will challenge most appetites because by the last bite, you feel so addicted to the massive flavors that abound in this dish that you’re compelled to order just one more.
The rice noodles themselves retain more discernible flavor due to not being masked by the broth. On top of the noodles, fresh ingredients are piled high, including shrimp, chicken, pork, slices of fishcake and a few pieces of squid, along with some long slices of chives and pepper. The beef broth, which was impressively clear, was served on the side in a small bowl, alongside a bowl of “sauce” which tasted like a mixture of sauces with some hints of soy sauce combined with some duck sauce, perhaps, that offered some depth and sweetness, drizzled with some oil. Whatever was in this thing, it was addictive and offered layers of flavors throughout the dish.
So, this is how you roll when at Ha Nam Ninh. Pour a tablespoon full of the magical garlic chili oil that is on the table into the sauce; also include a squeeze from the Sriracha sauce, also on the table. Stir, and get ready to use.
Take some of the beef broth and pour it in — just enough to coat everything in the bowl but not enough to create a soup. Then, take the sauce bowl and pour that in, too — you can see behind the bowl of noodles in the photo that I ended up using the majority of that bowl — the sauce offers way more flavors than saltiness so you can use a surprising amount without fear. A plate of sprouts and cilantro is offered, so toss those in making sure to pop the tops off the cilantro and include only those, discarding the stalks, then mix it all up.
The only thing left to do then is to eat.
It’s a bit shocking how quickly I can go through one of these bowls, and without the soup and beef flavors of regular pho, it’s incredibly light, slightly sweet and each flavor from every ingredient takes a star role in your mouth. Before you know it – your bowl is empty and you just stare at it, wondering if you could do just one more.
Which brings me to my last point about Ha Nam Ninh.
If not for the often incredibly long wait – I would order another bowl.
Now I know, and if I happen to go there starving, perhaps I will order two at once so that the wait doesn’t have to deter me! (That would be a sight to behold!) But for whatever reason, the service here is very slow, like the cook has gone to sea to get the shrimp and the fields to slaughter the chicken. Is it worth the wait — you BET; but do go knowing that especially during busier mealtimes, you will be waiting longer here than at most any pho place, which tends to be the fastest meal you can order outside of “fast food”.
Sometime later, Will got take-out and brought it to my house. It was then that I realized what awesome takeout food this is, too, as it doesn’t involve soup, and doesn’t even require reheating! You merely pour everything into a large bowl and go to town at home rather than at the restaurant! If not eaten quickly, the noodle can stick together in the takeout box, so it’s best to use it immediately, or keep some rice noodles at home (which cook in under a minute once put in boiling water).
So in the end, my utterly non-foodie friend introduced me to what is now one of my favorite noodle dishes in San Francisco. It’s no replacement for a hot bowl of Pho Ga at Turtle Tower, but it’s completely different from any pho you’ve had, also. The taste and flavors that the 25 Dry offers makes it the ideal lunch, and you will experience no “food coma” afterwards (though I can’t guarantee that if you order two as I intend to next time). I suggest you not use as much Sriracha in the dish when eating this because the subtlety of the flavors in this dish will be lost.
Other than slow, service is rather non-existent here, with nobody really checking on you or seeing if you need anything. That said, the place is rather clean, and when you do ask for water refills or the check, it does come. Eventually.
All in all, you’re there for the 25 Dry. Let me know what you think of it….I find that I’m craving it right now!
Addictive Factor: 9/10
Overall Rating: 7.4/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.