Once in awhile someone runs into me and asks how I come up with what to write for Local Eats every month. As a chef, I rarely cook for myself, and to be honest, I dine out quite a bit with family and friends. Trust me, it is nice to be on the receiving end. But to answer the question, I have nothing pre-arranged. Sometimes I have an occasional request, but the rest of the time I pretty much go with the flow.
One recent request was to review a local favorite from Hanoi. My first reaction was: “Well, I’m in HCMC, so how am I going to do this?” After a brief moment of being brain dead, I realized just because I live in HCMC doesn’t mean I cannot write about dishes from other regions of Vietnam.
This month I have decided to write on one of my favorite Hanoian dishes called bun cha.
The first time I had bun cha was years ago in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It was a very popular and busy place. Nothing fancy. It was amazing. Though I could not find it here in HCMC, perhaps that is why it never occurred to me to feature it in this column. If it’s good enough for Chef Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama, then it is good enough for me as well.
Bun cha originated from Hanoi and is a dish comprised of grilled pork, meatballs and white rice noodles. This very popular dish is served with sliced grilled fatty pork, pork meatballs, pickled papaya and or carrots, a side of various herbs and nuoc cham (fish sauce condiment). The herbs or rau thom are comprised of red perilla (tia to), Thai basil (hung que) and lettuce.
The nuoc cham is made of vinegar, sugar and fish sauce. The fatty pork is similar to Galbi Korean marinated BBQ, grilled over charcoal and then served in the nuoc cham.
If you’re not familiar with how to eat bun cha, it is quite simple. Add the rice noodles and herbs to the nuoc cham with the pork and enjoy. When I was in Hanoi some years back, bun cha was strictly a daytime food, but I am sure it has now changed and especially in HCMC these restaurants are open all day. For the die hard fan in HCMC, here are some notable places to get your bun cha fix:
1. Bun Cha Anh Hong
140B Ly Chinh Thang // District 3, HCMC // Open 6:30am to 8:30pm
Anh Hong is a long-standing eatery, with a nice open space and long captain’s metal tables so you’ll likely share with other guests when it’s busy and delicious. A must try is their banh tom (deep fried shrimps and sweet potato fritter).
2. Bun Cha Ho Guom
135 Vo Van Tan // District 3, HCMC // Open 7am to 9pm
Make sure to order their nem ran tom cua bien (crispy seafoods spring rolls) as an added side to the bun cha, it is amazing.
3. Bun Cha Ha Noi 26
8A/6D2 Thai Van Lung Street // District 1, HCMC // Open 6am to 8pm
This place just happens to be in Japan Town alley (formerly known as the expat ghetto) across from Skewers Restaurant. Besides bun cha, their spring rolls and shrimp cakes are divine.