Eating a Saigonese rendition of Hanoian bún chả is much like walking into the Carl’s Jr at Vincom Center and expecting a succulent burger hand formed from the finest Wagyu beef that is then grilled to perfection over hot mesquite coals. Or better yet it’s the equivalent of expecting fully authentic Tuscan cuisine at the Grand Forks, North Dakota Olive Garden (See Meal #86, A North Dakota Inspired Review). The masses such as poor Marilyn who was mesmerized by this chain’s offerings may be lulled into thinking that eggplant parmesan is the real deal through slick marketing and picture menus, but those of us in the know realize nothing beats a food served fresh in its native habitat.
A fan cooled open front joint called Bun Cha Ho Guom deep in District 3 at 47 Truong Dinh Street has been tempting me for weeks now. The menu boasts other specialties fully unique to Hanoi such as shrimp cakes and crab stuffed spring rolls but none entices me more than charred pig bits in a bowl. With my friend Anneke in tow, I ordered two portions of the bún chả which in a perfect world is an amazing combination of grilled pork patties and strips, fresh herbs, thin rice vermicelli and a broth of fish sauce, water, vinegar, sugar, and more.
In Hanoi a woman typically hunches over a sidewalk grill while flipping racks of the bún chả meat back and forth, back and forth over the blazing embers. The heat sears in the juices to form wonderful layer of charred perfection greeting our taste buds. Here in Saigon the bún chả grill, if there even is one, is secreted away somewhere beyond detection.
This glaring omission proves most interesting to me in a city where battered metal boxes of all shapes and sizes litter the precious little space remaining for pedestrian use all the while making for one blazing hot hazard while walking. Find me one city block here without a plume of fragrant smoke wafting skyward and beckoning the hungry tableside for an amazing meal.
This interpretation of bún chả isn’t bad at all. Actually it hit the spot much like a watered down light beer quenches thirst nicely in the absence of a richer, more complex ale. The meat patties lacking the taste so common in Hanoi were quite loose and ready to fall apart, and some of the pork belly strips proved a bit too fatty for my taste. I just don’t do gelatinous slices of fat, but I was able to work with it. The proper purple perilla, mint, and lettuce filled the herb basket along with the uniquely Saigon additions of shredded water spinach.
Bún Chả 34 at 34 Hang Than Street near Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi remains the standard bearer for my favorite Vietnamese food (Meal #143). Luckily work brings me frequently that way. Road trip anyone?