Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Presidential Bun Cha

The staff at Bun Cha Huong Lien seems to be a little puzzled when I attempted to order from their a la carte menu as if no tourist has ever done that these days, but after 5 seconds of attempting to pronounce Nem Cua Be (fried crab roll), I gave up and said the magic words – “Combo Obama, please”. Yup, that’s the place in Hanoi made famous by the former US President’s visit with his foodie friend AB a few years ago.

The combo, yes you guess it right, was the same dishes President Obama ordered back then, and came with a plate of Bun Cha, Nem Hai San (the seafood roll similar to Nem Cua Be except it’s bigger in size) and a bottle of Hanoi beer. Originally I wasn’t planning to have that much food in between meals and I already had 2 bottles of beer by 4pm before I walked into the shop, but I kind of glad I did order what everyone in the restaurant was ordering at the end. The place was crowded when I visited (hardly a surprise given their new found fame) but at least there’s air conditioning in the dining area, which stretches over 2 floors. My food was quick to arrive with various components of the bun cha served on separate plates, plus the seafood roll and a bottle of Hanoi Beer, which to be honest, tasted like water.

The Bun Cha tasted fine. The strips of pork was grilled and served in a bowl of sauce which was tasty, albeit on the oily side with a not-so-thin layer of oil visible on top. But it was essential as the dipping sauce for the rice noodles served on the side. On a separate plate was a mix of herbs, predominantly cilantro but other types as well. That is to be used as wrapper or garnish to the meat. The Nem Hai San came in pretty good size and was crispy – working well with the sauce too.  I almost didn’t want to leave, seated comfortably in the air-conditioned room and not wanting to be out there in the heat.

Best in Hanoi? I wasn’t sure since I haven’t had quite enough to judge, but this is one place you just have to do it right? Just so in case you were asked whether you had the Bun Cha Obama when you tell your friends you just went to Hanoi.

Turned out that’s not the only plate of bun cha I had in my 3 days in this old town. Bun Cha 34 looks a little more run-down than Bun Cha Huong Lien at the fringe of Old Quarter but I actually liked their version better. I went there around lunch time on my last day in town and the place was packed. Not exactly the best environment I wanna be in under such hot weather but I went in anyway and sat down on the stool at one of the tables facing the street - the only empty spot available in this tiny eatery. My order of bun cha took no time to arrive, since it’s done right at the make-shift “kitchen”/cooking station right in front of me, with the lady grilling the pork at the charcoal grill right next to her near the pavement.

Unlike the one at Bun Cha Huong Lien, all components arrived at the same time in one plastic plate, piled next to each other like a little platter. The thin rice noodles were a little sticky since it’s been pre-cooked and stayed in a bamboo basket for a while before being put on the plate by the handful, but it’s okay since I need to dip into the sauce before I eat anyway. There were plenty of herbs served alongside as well, the perilla, cilantro, mint, bean sprouts and others that I couldn’t name, and they went well with the pork swam in the sweet broth. And what set their food apart was the meat, served as round patties, wrapped in betal leaf and grilled on charcoal, giving it great aroma and flavor. Think the good pork sausages you have for breakfast at a diner and this one was sweeter and tastier.

And I still dream about it every now and then – the addiction just grew on me.

When? May 14 and 16 2018
Bun Cha Huong Lien, 24 Le Van Huu, Phan Chu rinh, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi, Vietnam
Bun Cha 34, 34 Hang Than, Nguyen Trung Truc, Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Vietnam

P.S. This was written before Anthony Bourdain's apparent suicide and posted after. Of course like everyone else, I was saddened and shocked by the news of such tragedy for he's always been an inspiration for me to travel and explore the food scene in different countries and cultures and in the process, get to know the world a little better. Over time, he's become a trusted source of where to eat whenever I travel to somewhere slightly more exotic and I always appreciate his insight. So RIP chef - you have lived a good life for your adventures have touched so many hearts and I thank you.

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