Bun cha is a lunchtime only dish, ubiquitous in the north, far rarer in the south. It doesn't sound much - BBQ minced pork balls in fish sauce with vegetation and cold noodles. Simple - yes. But, miss this dish and you miss out - big time.
I spent years experimenting with different bun cha restaurants in Hanoi until I finally settled on a reliable favourite. In Saigon the last thing I wanted was some poncey southern interpretation of this classic northern dish. Fortunately, I mentioned my dilemma to a Hanoian I bumped into in Saigon. She pointed me in the direction of a busy restaurant called Quan Ho Tay at 20B Tran Cao Van. As with nearly all the best restaurants I have tried in Vietnam, aesthetics are an afterthought. Metal tables, cheap plastic jars filled with condiments and the ice in my drink comes from a huge rectangular block, bought in bulk and hacked at occasionally to procure ice cubes.
There are a couple of 'secrets' to a good Bun cha, most important is the fish sauce. Learning how to gauge the right amount of sugar, vinegar and nuoc mam (fish sauce) is the tricky bit. The line between fish sauce heaven and a big bowl of crap is a fine one. I like mine a little stronger than Quan Ho Tay offered up, but then that's why there's a pot of vinegar with garlic on the table. The other secret is how the meat is grilled. It needs an extremely hot flame and should be charred on both sides. When it is placed in the bowl small flakes of black char fall off and dot the fish sauce. Standard Bun cha comes with small bites of grilled sliced pork. I never order these as they are normally far too gristly for my delicate waistline.
In with the fish sauce are a few finely sliced carrots and sliced susu (Sorry, don't know the English for this veggie). The cold noodles should be added a bit at a time to the fish sauce. Oh...and come to think of it... that's one concession Quan Ho Tay has made to soft southern diners. They give you an extra, empty bowl for mixing and eating from... Pathetic... Just stick with the one bowl, save on table clutter and keep the dishwasher happy;)
The last part of a bun cha lunch is that impressive herb hedge pictured above. There are seven different clippings in among that lot and I don't know the English names of all of them. The stringy one on top is stripped fresh morning glory (rau muong). It gives a great moorish-veggie crunch when eaten in with the meat and the noodles. That is definitely my fave among this pile. There's lettuce (xa lach), basil, (hung cay), a fab purple leaf (tiet to),a green one that's much the same (kinh gioi), a deep green fella often used with fish dishes (giap ca) and a small, strong tasting beast (hung lang). All a bit technical I know - but the waiter very kindly wrote them all down for me - if you know the english names, please post a comment. The sauce is what brings everything together. Personally, I like chopstick or spoonfulls of meat, noodle and herb all in one go. The fish sauce electrifies everything around it.
Bun cha munchers normally order a sidedish of spring rolls (Cha gio in the south, Nem in the north. Same thing, bit bigger in the north, different name. Confusing). These are filled with a dash of crabmeat, minced pork, garlic, herbs, mushrooms, translucent noodles and seasoning. You dip them in the same fish sauce with the pork balls in. Quan Ho Tay's are pretty good, a sound crunch, but not packed with the sea crab chunks of freshness I look for in a spring roll. But, hey I'm not complaining, I'm just happy to know where I can get a Bun cha fix in this city.
Lunch for two, including four spring rolls with a couple of iced Vietnamese teas, 30,000VD. Now that's a bargain. View the business card and the menu. Check out the Quan Ho Tay photostream and Download bun_cha_movie.mov .