Bún Chả in America – 115 of 365

"Bún Chả Atlanta"

A proper bowl of bún chả in Hanoi is one of that city’s greatest culinary inventions.   Hot coals sear tiny minced pork balls into charred medallions sealed with flavor.  Strips of marinated pork meat crisp up as the flames lick their fatty edges.  Bún chả can be found everywhere from impromptu here today and gone tomorrow sidewalk stands to well known street food shops such as Bún Chả Đắc Kim at 1 Hang Manh Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Meal #50).

No matter where we sample it, the basic bún chả premise remains the same.  A clear, slightly warmed fish sauce based broth containing slivers of pickled carrots and unripe green mango forms the base of the dish.   Sticky white rice vermicelli noodles and a basket of herbs such as mint, purple perilla and Thai basil accompany the main star of the show, the grilled pork.

The other day the workers at Viet Tofu in Atlanta had strangely whispered their recommendation for bún chả across the counter, and their words carried me about a mile down the road to Nam Phuong Restaurant at 4051 Buford Highway.  My simple request for a takeaway order of bún chả was met with a blank stare from the waiter.  I asked again, “Bún chả?  Buuuunn Chaaaaaa? Boon Chaah?”  Maybe I’m saying it wrong or something.   Geez.  I felt like I was back in Vietnam as this is the standard bewilderment people deliver more often than not rather than the food I so desire.

Finally, this young man said, “Don’t have bún chả.”   Me:  “I was told you do.”  Him:  “No, no bún chả.”  Me:  “Can I see a menu?”  I even pointed to the item in question clearly printed in black in white, and he simple said, “Oh, you want bún chả Hanoi!  Yes.  We have.”  By this point I didn’t care if was bún chả Johannesburg;  I just wanted to be on my way with some tasty food in a bag within a reasonable timeframe.  As if my intentions still weren’t clear he asked, “So you want bún chả Hanoi or not?”  Well, I haven’t been just standing here for my health the past five minutes, have I?

Bún Chả in Hanoi

In exchange for $9.58 he handed over a large sack of one of my all time favorite street foods.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another installment of Why Doesn’t It Taste Like In Vietnam.  The most glaring omission to the bag’s contents was the very broth that actually makes bún chả proper bún chả.   The only tiny bit of liquid here was some extremely salty dark brown mess of unidentifiable origins in the bottom of the plastic container holding the meat.  And don’t even get me started on the meat.  Two pork patties the size of small hamburgers had never seen the heat of charcoal while the pork strips seemed more stir fried.  Neither meat tasted anything like bún chả, Hanoi or not.

Such a gigantic mound of greens and lettuce accompanied the meal that perhaps Nam Phuong thinks Americans prefer to make burrito sized wraps out of the meat and noodles.  In Atlanta some anchovy tasting herb comes as standard equipment yet thankfully is absent in Hanoi.  I did appreciate the proper mint and purple perilla though.   The white noodles tasted suspiciously like spaghetti and normally I would have eagerly dunked them Italian taste or not into the awaiting fish sauce broth.  Oh yeah, that’s right.  I don’t have any here.

A more fitting name for this lunch is bún chả Atlanta as this is certainly more a local abomination that would certainly give a true Hanoian great pause.  One of our first missions now next week in Saigon is to seek out a proper bowl of bún chả if such a thing even exists outside of Hanoi.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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