Since I needed to run an errand out by the airport, I decided to run by Van Anh at 36 Hong Ha for some bún chả. Why not kill two birds with one stone? And, yes, I know. You are saying to yourself not another bún chả meal. These juicy pork patties and crispy strips grilled to perfection are such a staple in Hanoi, and I constantly crave the perfect bowl. Trust me, I could do 365 bún chả meals and never tire.
This place came highly recommended by various coworkers so of course I entered with the highest of expectations. The adult size furniture was the biggest difference at first between a proper Hanoian sidewalk stand with ankle high stools versus here. Actually I take that back. Something else was off, but I couldn’t place it right away. Of course, that’s it…The biggest difference turned out to be no sidewalk grill sending plumes of oily smoke all over the neighborhood. My doubts started to rise now if this joint really was the real deal after all.
The waitress seemed a bit taken aback I was actually able to ask for “one bun cha” in her native tongue, and within seconds three people materialized out of nowhere to get a closer look at this western guy who can actuall utter three simple monosyllabic words. Within seconds equilibrium once again descended upon the brightly lit space with everyone back to their routines.
The herbs arriving first were more a Saigon interpretation than Hanoi reality. Of course a small portion the requisite purple perilla added some deep color to the greens, but nonstandard selections such as shredded banana leaf and water spinach comprised the bulk of the basket. I’ve never seen either of these two latter greens served with a proper bún chả in Hanoi.
A small bowl of sweet broth with strips of pork belly and the round meat patties came next. Normally I enjoy the fat laced belly meat since the hot coals sear the blubbery strips into crunchy, highly edible treats. I am talking the difference here between that soggy bacon crap on an Egg McMuffin versus that super crunchy goodness made at home. Grill it too short of a time and it’s a fatty mess best left untouched. Grill it just right and it disintegrates right on the tongue. It’s a few seconds of bliss leading up to a lifetime of clogged arteries.
The pork patties are my all time favorite meat in Hanoi with their lemongrass, fish sauce and sugary taste. These were quite plain indeed. Think of a meatball with absolutely no seasoning at all. If these had ever seen the heat of a grill I do not know for brazenly absent were any charmarks. In other words the outer layer lacked any crispiness at all.
I am far from giving up on finding the perfect bowl of bún chả in Saigon. It’s out there tucked away somewhere down a dark smoke filled alley. This one wasn’t bad. It just didn’t stand out. Maybe a six out of ten on the búnchảmeter would be fair.