It’s the smoke you notice first. Not the sight of it, but the smell. Meat is cooking somewhere. And it’s nearby. It could be coming from a gutter-level barbecue plopped onto a busy pavement. A Vietnamese woman wearing the flowing, pajama-like blouse called an áo bà ba is crouched, clutching a bamboo fan that she waves at the white hot coals in front of her. A pall of smoke envelops her customers, who are all bent bowlward, slurping tepid sauce, crunching herbs, and gnawing charred meat.
—Excerpt from Eating Việt Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table.
Last spring, a colleague in New York sent me a picture of President Obama dining with Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi. The two sat on blue stools in front of a simple, stainless-steel table, on which sat white bowls, a plate of greens, and smaller plates mounded with white noodles. It was a meal I know well.
In Hanoi at lunchtime, bún chả, a grilled pork and noodle dish, is everywhere. You only need bring a sense of smell and an appetite to track it down. The same is as true today as it was 20 years ago when I first tried the street-side dish of grilled pork, fish sauce, noodles, and herbs.
I knew next to nothing about Vietnamese food before I moved to Vietnam. Back then, I was an English teacher working for the British Council and in search of a hobby. I found one on the streets of Hanoi the day I pulled up at a stall on Phùng Hưng Street. The “kitchen”—a grill laid on the pavement—sat at the base of a sau tree. Pork sizzled and popped as insistent fumes billowed like a vast curtain across the street. The words bún chả, scrawled in faint, felt-tip marker on a cardboard sign, hung upon the tree above the grill. On that day, I couldn’t resist. I sat down on a blue plastic seat for what was to be the first of many, many similar meals. What started as a cheap meal on the street grew into an ongoing passion.
Bún chả is a lunchtime-only dish; the restaurant Obama and Bourdain visited opened during evening hours for the meeting. The main event arrives inside a small, porcelain bowl and consists of charred, minced pork patties and crispy cuts of pork belly submerged in fish sauce, accompanied by sliced carrot and chayote, and dusted with black pepper. Two plates accompany this. One is filled with fresh, white noodles, the other a jumble of leaves: lettuce, two kinds of perilla, a delicious and powerful fish mint called diếp cá, coriander, raw bean sprouts, and the raw stems of crunchy morning glory called rau muống. Two decades after I first experienced it, the dish remains a lunchtime fixture all over the capital.
“Bún chả popularity has not diminished,” says Tracey Lister, a Vietnamese cookbook author and chef at the Hanoi Cooking Centre on Châu Long street. “On a two-hundred-meter stretch on Châu Long alone, there are three vendors selling bún chả.”
Unlike other Hanoi originals such as phở, bánh cuốn, and chả cá, the origins of bún chả seem to be lost to history. No one seems to know who first created this classic street dish: where, when or how. In the south of the country, a similar dish prevails: bún thịt nướng, or rice noodles with grilled meat, a one-bowl dish. It’s made with the same simple, common ingredients as bún chả and is the sweeter, southern cousin to the northern bún chả. In the north, however, bún chả is a Hanoi staple.
As I pondered the image of Obama and Bourdain, I wondered which restaurant they had chosen from among the abundant bún chả options available in the city. Then I noticed the address: Bún Chả Hương Liên at 24 Lê Văn Hưu Street. I used to live further along that stretch of street. I drank tea there, slurped phở, bought coffee beans, sunk nasty, nasty, regrettable shots of rượu (distilled rice liquor), and took regular lunches at the cơm bình dân—or “worker’s food”—restaurants that sat along it. I was also quite familiar with Hương Liên, even though it has changed its number since my time, from 36 to 24. As I wrote about it in my book:
The bún chả and nem cua bể at number 36 were exquisite. Bowls were piled ten high and fifteen wide, waiting to be filled for lunchtime diners, a testament to the popularity of this stall. The standard white-tiled room, with red plastic numbers denoting rows of seats, was always packed at midday. Customers stood and hovered over you until your seat became vacant. As soon as you sat down, one of the legions of teenage girls working the floor would swash the detritus off the table from the previous diner, take your order, and zap it onto the stainless steel surface in front of you faster than a case of clap could circumnavigate one of the seedier establishments along the same road.
The restaurant had a stellar reputation for its bún chả and it boasted the rare luxury of indoor seating. However, just as important as the bún chả on offer was that other dish, the nem cua bể. These deep-fried, crispy, crunchy, fat rolls were crammed with the biggest chunks of white crab meat in all Hanoi. They were the perfect accompaniment to bún chả, and when I frequented the restaurant I often ordered a second round.
I was a little disappointed to see in the photo that in the presence of the president of the United States, the floor of the restaurant looked immaculate. There wasn’t so much as a scrap of tissue paper, discarded toothpick, or fallen beer bottle. This oversight was almost certainly the first, and hopefully, the last, time that standards have visibly slipped at Hương Liên. The floors of all the best restaurants in Hanoi always come with a certain aesthetic. Whether it be a motorbike driving through the dining space, a rat crawling up a wall, a rusty fan creaking above you, or the floor inevitably strewn with squeezed-dry lemons and chicken bones, street food in Vietnam always involves a certain amount of theater. “The quintessential bún chả joint is grilling up the pork as diners eat or eagerly await,” says cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, who has penned five books on Vietnamese food. “It’s an experience to eat on the street atop a plastic stool and watch the action unfold.”
For anyone wanting to find the real flavor of Vietnam, the taste Hanoians eat day in and day out, Hương Liên is the place to be. That a president would choose to eat here tells us that he knows the power of food as diplomacy. The best food in Vietnam is in places like this, not at the five-star hotel around the corner.
Opinions differ on how to find the best bún chả on offer today.
“I go to Thụy Khuê street,” says Lister. “Street number about 100. Sold out by 12:30 pm.”
“I wander the Old Quarter in the early afternoon and check out who’s grilling up the pork,” says Nguyen. “When I see a group of women at a particular spot, I join them. The ladies know where to find bún chả.”
As for me, I never quite forgot that first hit. As I wrote in my book:
This bún chả had the power to make the surroundings almost attractive. The filthy floor, the horns, the yak-yak of sellers, the fumes, trains, hustlers, chicken choppers, soup-vat maneuverers—and even the dink-dink-dink of the metal workers sounded almost musical alongside this ballistic bowl of bún chả.
Maybe that’s all it took for Obama to get hooked, too. After I’d learned about their meal together, I asked Bourdain what the president thought of his dinner.
“He loved it,” said Bourdain. “He was still talking about it the following day.”
Can’t say I blame him. I’m still talking about it too, 20 years after my first time.
Originally published on Roads & Kingdoms on September 25, 2016.