Saigon Bun Cha

Saigon Bun Cha

In 1959, author Vu Bang described Hanoi as a town transfixed by bún chả. (Saigon Bun Cha)

A legion of ladies roamed the streets with makeshift grills carved out of French biscuit boxes on their heads dealing in perfect pork. The chả, as it was known, came in tender meatballs and fatty slices of belly. The masters of the meal served it lightly charred, evenly cooked and moist. They could never be outdone at home, leading many vexed housewives to suspect they had slathered their pork in dog fat.

No one knew for sure, Bang wrote.

But there was one thing everyone did know: their special blend of fish sauce and rice vinegar made the meal. Bang warned his readers that the sauce (“not too salty and with just enough vinegar”) could become addictive.

Indeed, he wrote like a true junkie, particularly in describing the moment when a soft minced patty “melts into” a crunchy slice of pork belly in a single bowl of fish sauce ­ “bringing a harmonious rhythm to the palate.” Overall, he seemed optimistic about the future of grilled pork and rice noodles. He reported that market stalls had started serving the meal to crowds of diners. The shier among them headed for what he guessed was the nation’s first bún chả restaurant—a small but already famous place on Gia Ngu.

It is hard to imagine what the writer would say if faced with the state of his beloved dish in modern Ho Chi Minh City.

Hot, cavernous bún chả joints churn out soggy pork pucks and tattered belly rinds all over town. There is no crunch to most Saigon Bun Cha. There is no melt. And the fish sauce too often resembles flat, salted 7Up. Time has added chả giò (fried spring rolls) to the menu. After many disappointments, I fell in love with a place that brought Bang’s vision to life. Bún Chả Hà Nội occupies its tiny alleyway with great humility. And its dedication to perfect service has not been shaken by tragedy.

Saigon Bun Cha

Last month, the matriarch and grill meister Do Thi Dao passed away. Her husband followed soon after. But the business has continued under their only daughter, Lan, and a handful of relatives who have come down from up North to grill up immaculate pork balls and thick belly slices between bamboo sticks and tied with a piece of dried banana leaf. Nothing is cooked until their customers arrive. When the order is given, they fan a small fire and begin working the skewers like foosball rods.

Most of the smoke creeps up a tin chimney but just enough gets trapped on the meat. The food arrives at the table about 15 minutes later, exceeding all of Bang’s qualifications.
Each serving gets a scoop from a bucket of crisp green papaya and carrot slices soaked in vinegar and a ladle of Nước Mắm Phan Thiệt. The balance achieved here would blow Bang’s mind.

Beyond the meat, Bún Chả Hà Nội gets everything else right. It’s spotless. The bright dining area could be mistaken for an operating room saved for the display of Snoopy memorabilia that occupies the far wall. The herbs—baby butter lettuce, perilla, fish mint, cilantro, basil— always come out equally spotless. Each serving of bún chả comes in at a mere VND50,000. The all-pork spring rolls (enough for two people) go for VND20,000.

For Saigon Bun Cha visit:

Bún Chả Hà Nội
173/18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai
Street, District 1
Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (or until they sell out)
Tel: (08) 3 830 1196

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