It’s prime noodle soup season, which, for many folks, means it’s high time to hit up the Bay Area’s many outstanding pho shops for a hot, soul-restoring bowl. But what about all of the other great Vietnamese noodle soups — the spicy, lemongrass-scented broth of Central Vietnamese bun bo Hue? Or the deep umami-forward flavors of the crab-infused meatballs in a bowl of bun rieu? In San Francisco proper, anyway, those soups are hard to come by.
For SF natives Adam Li, James Wong, Alberto Wong, and Andrew Lum, the search for those particular flavors turned into a mission of sorts — and then a business opportunity. Last week, the four friends launched a new pop-up, Sunset Slurps that specifically specializes in bun bo Hue and bun rieu. (A fifth partner, Kyle Choi, who handles the company’s finances, is based in SoCal.) The business currently operates out of the Joint Venture Kitchen pop-up venue in SoMa, dishing out noodles for takeout and delivery only three nights a week.
Three of the founders — Li, Lum, and James Wong — grew up together in San Francisco’s Sunset District and all attended UC Davis. The three friends are Chinese American, and, according to Li, it wasn’t until their college years that they delved deeply into Vietnamese food for the first time. Three or four times a week, they would hit up Pho King, their favorite spot in Sacramento, which is where they first got first got hooked on bun bo Hue.
Once they all moved back to San Francisco, however, they couldn’t find very many places where they could satisfy their craving. Li notes that there are amazing bun bo Hue and bun rieu restaurants in Sacramento and San Jose, but in San Francisco proper, both noodle soups are hard to come by. (For instance, Mong Thu, an Eater 38 restaurant, is one of the only spots in the city that makes stellar versions of both — but neither is listed on the restaurant’s regular menu.)
So, they did the next thing: They got into the kitchen and started experimenting, teaching themselves by watching YouTube videos and soliciting feedback from their friends. When the pandemic hit, and Li was laid off from his tech job, they decided to hire a chef — Derrick Lau — to fine-tune their recipes, and to turn their hobby into a real business.
Of course, the particular noodle soups they chose to highlight are known for their homey and, often, quite bold and pungent flavors — a category of food that might seem at odds with a flashy new pop-up with a slick online ordering interface. Li, for his part, says the goal is to popularize bun bo Hue and bun rieu to as wide a mainstream audience as possible. What that means, for instance, is that their bun bo Hue incorporates some of the funky mam ruoc (fermented shrimp paste) that is beloved by many Vietnamese food lovers, but not so much that novices will find it overwhelming. They make a sate (lemongrass chile sauce) that has shrimp paste mixed in, offered on the side for customers who like a stronger taste. And the pork blood that is a standard bun bo Hue topping — along with the beef shank, pork trotters, and pork sausage — is optional.
“We wanted to hit a middle ground between hardcore bun bo Hue lovers and a person who has never had bun bo Hue flavors before,” Li says.
In addition to the soups, Sunset Slurps is also serving nem nuong cuon (baked fresh spring rolls) that’s inspired by the legendary version at Brodard’s, in Orange County — another dish Li says he hasn’t really seen in San Francisco. It’s got a fried egg roll stuffed inside of it, and it’s served with an orange sauce that, again, is modeled after Brodard’s.
For now, Li says the pop-up and takeout-only business model seems like the best fit for Sunset Slurps, but if all goes well, he and his partners have talked about turning it into a full-blown restaurant someday. Of course, given the pop-up’s name and its founders’ deep roots in the neighborhood, Li says it’s almost a given where they’d like that restaurant to be: “I think the Sunset would be our best location.”
Sunset Slurps is currently open for takeout Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30–9:30 p.m. with pickup at Joint Venture Kitchen (167 11th Street). Delivery is available via Uber Eats and DoorDash.