Let’s journey north to Hanoi for three local dishes unique to the capital. This is my latest article for Tuoi Tre newspaper. The link and text follow:
Word is out. Various magazines and travel websites such as CNN Go are now letting our neighbors in on a secret we in Vietnam have long known to be true. Our very own capital city is definitely coming into its own as one of the top street food meccas in Southeast Asia. Hanoi offers foodies and locals alike a wide selection of dishes unique to its sidewalks. The very same dishes providing commonplace sustenance to generations of native Hanoians now send the newly initiated on a culinary adventure with tastes long remembered.
I had the pleasure of calling Hanoi home for eighteen months, and its color and chaos gave birth to my interest in all things street food. Oh how I still yearn for those northern tastes now that I have moved south to Saigon. Frequent trips back to my old neighborhood keep my passion for Hanoi’s native cuisine alive, and in a city this large, the choices can seem daunting. Let’s narrow down the vast field of foods befitting the nation’s capital and take a bite size look at three unique local specialties costing a reasonable VND 30,000 to 40,000 (US$1.5-2) each.
Slightly off Hanoi’s beaten path, several well worn open front food shops plastered with Coca Cola and Pepsi advertisements line Phu Tay Ho Street along the shoreline of this roadway’s namesake, Tay Ho or, West Lake in English. Deep fried rice batter fritters each containing a single shrimp, thin shell and all, are artfully arranged into towering pyramid displays beckoning the hungry to tables with a Buddhist temple across the street their backdrop.
Eating these golden- hued treats known as banh tom is simple. Wrap the crunchy shrimp cake in tangy greens such as perilla, mint and butter lettuce selected from a plastic tableside basket. Then if you are like me, clumsily attempt to give it all a chopstick dunk in a sweetened fish sauce mixture complete with strips of pickled unripe papaya.
With well over two dozen meals up and down this strip of restaurants under my belt, one whose name and address are synonymous, 61 Phu Tay Ho, has become my regular choice for its fresh offerings. A side of green papaya and beef jerky salad paired with the banh tom provides the proper balance so integral to Vietnamese cuisine…a medley of sweet, sour, salt, and spice.
A noodle based dish is our next stop on our Hanoian street food tour, and yes, your suspicions are correct. The pho lending pho xao its name is indeed related to the soup popularly believed to have originated in Hanoi. However, this street food dispenses with broth, and the broad silky ribbons of rice noodles swirl around a wok along with tomatoes, onion and bok choy. The searing heat transforms the noodles’ outer edges into a crisp frame holding middles both supple and soft. Copious amounts of hot sauce will elevate this plate of noodles into a mouth searing affair lingering long after dinner.
Overly generous portions of pho xao fly out of the kitchen in a nondescript unnamed concrete building between Segafredo at 36 Xuan Dieu Road and Tracy’s Sports Bar at number 40 in the Tay Ho neighborhood. The tiny plastic stools occupying that fluid area where sidewalk melds into street seem so incongruous with the nearby more “upmarket” Western choices with price tags to match, but rest assured the stir fried noodles and other menu choices here are anything but average.
I have saved my personal street food favorite for last. For me nothing says Hanoi like a hearty, calorie rich bun cha, or grilled meat with rice noodles. Tiny tables all across town strain to contain the bowls of sweetened fish sauce based broth subtly spiced with garlic and red birdseye chili peppers; piles of spongy white rice vermicelli; and baskets of various herbs such as saw tooth, mint, Thai basil, Vietnamese balm, purple perilla, and bibb lettuce.
Floating around in the warmed liquid are pickled strips of unripe mango and the two stars of this classic…tiny medallions of ground pork along with thin strips of pork belly. A blazing hot grill sears these tender morsels with the most wonderful outer char meat could ever hope for. This crispy layer seals in inner softness and juices yearning to be set free, and each bite washes a flavor overload across the tongue.
Bun Cha 37 at 37 Hang Than Street is my go to place when my cravings prove too strong. Don’t let the chaotic and crowded dining room fool you though as this food shop has perfected its craft. Small touches such as a dusting of finely ground black pepper across the pork and herbs grilled onto the meat elevate Bun Cha 37 above its peers.Another praiseworthy Old Quarter option is Bun Cha Dac Kim at 1 Hang Manh Street.
I hope these three street food classics inspire you to similarly explore all Hanoi or your own backyard has to offer. Bon appetit!