A bún chả that could wake the dead

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Resurrecting a dead writer's dream meal in Ho Chi Minh City


(Above) Do Thi Dao doesn't grill your bún chả till you order it.
(Below) Trinh Manh Hung stuffs his crab rolls with cilantro, giving them a nice kick.

No one knows exactly when the first Hanoian combined grilled pork, rice noodles, herbs and nưá»›c mắm (fish sauce) in a single bowl.

But by 1959, author Vu Bang described a town transfixed by bún chả.

A legion of cooks roamed the capital with makeshift grills carved out of French biscuit boxes on their heads.

These people dealt 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 with fat.

They could never be outdone at home, leading many vexed housewives to suspect these meat magicians slathered their products in dog fat.

No one knew for sure, Bang wrote.

But there was one thing everyone did know: the fish sauce these vagabond cooks served 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. There is no melt.

And the fish sauce too often resembles flat, salted 7Up.

Time has added chả giò (fried spring rolls) to the menus of these establishments.

After many disappointments, I finally found a place that brought Bang's vision to life. I had passed Bún Chả Hà Ná»™i in its tiny alleyway a million times and never noticed it.

Bún Chả Hà Ná»™i (for meat)
173/18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1
Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and
4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Tel: (08) 3 830 1196

Bún Chả Hà Ná»™i (for rolls)
8 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The workings of this small family restaurant are subtle, almost secret.

Every morning, Do Thi Dao presses immaculate pork balls and thick belly slices between bamboo sticks and ties them up with strips of dried banana leaf.

Dao and her daughter Lan usually sit quietly out in front of their home manning a neat grill station in their pajamas while the city's finest cuts of pork marinate beneath a big white napkin.

Nothing is cooked until their customers arrive.

When the order is given Dao fans a small fire and begins working the skewers like foosball rods.

Most of the smoke creeps up a tin chimney and you'd never notice the small grill for all the bowls and fixings.

The food arrives at the table about 15 minutes later, exceeding all of Bang's qualifications.

Dao's secret seems buried in the depths of her brown bucket of nưá»›c mắm Phan Thiết to which she adds a scoop of crisp green papaya and carrot slices soaked in vinegar. The balance she achieves between these buckets would blow Bang's mind.

Beyond the meat, Ms. Dao 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.

But Dao takes an old school approach to the perfunctory fried spring rolls.

She fills her chả giò with pork alone, she says, due to a dearth of quality ingredients and cost considerations.

"They usually only have Flower Crab meat at the market," she said. "It's not good; besides, I like to keep things cheap for my customers."

Each serving of bún chả comes in at a mere VND50,000. The spring rolls (enough for two people) go for VND20,000.

Those who cannot live without a decent chả giò cua bể (ocean crab spring roll) should go see Trinh Manh Hung, the long-haired Hanoian who has run a respectable bún chả establishment of the same name at the top of District 1 for 12 years.

Hung's crab rolls have a fresh, spicy kick. He has no problem telling you that he's loaded them with coriander.

"Everyone has their own recipe," he said. "Mine isn't a secret. I just think it's good."

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