Engulfed by the cloud of smoke coming off a roadside grill in an alley off Hang Than Street, a sixty-four year old Vietnamese woman hurriedly adds pork belly to a bowl. Bún chả contains the spirit of Hanoi. The city is unimaginable without it. Bite-sized grilled meat patties, pork belly, green papaya and carrots are added to the sweet-and-savory mixture of fish sauce, stock, vinegar, sugar, and lemon juice. Her lips curve into a gentle smile as she places the bowl next to a plate of rice vermicelli, a basket of herbs, a plate of nem rán (fried spring rolls), and two small bowls containing garlic and chilies.
Like its other Northern companion, phở, bún chả has a disputed history and an intricate connection to the spirit of Hanoi. There is no consensus of when bún chả first appeared in Vietnamese cuisine, but there is an almost unanimous agreement that the dish originated in Hanoi.
Bún chả is loved for its combination of complex savory flavors. Like its other Northern companion, phở, bún chả has a disputed history and an intricate connection to the spirit of Hanoi. There is no consensus of when bún chả first appeared in Vietnamese cuisine, but there is an almost unanimous agreement that the dish originated in Hanoi. Thanh Nien, a Vietnamese newspaper, describes the early days of bún chả in the bustling city: “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... lightly charred, evenly cooked and moist with fat.” In 1959, the well-known Vietnamese food journalist, Vu Bang, wrote that Hanoi was a city “transfixed by bún chả”. He even went so far as to claim that the sauce is addictive.
The first bún chả restaurant was located on Gia Ngư Street in Hoàn Kiếm, but, as Bún Chả Ta claims, has moved to 21 Nguyễn Hữu Huân. Despite its claim as the original bún chả restaurant of Hanoi, the authenticity found at Vietnamese street stalls isn’t found in this fanciful air conditioned room.The colorful art and weaved baskets feel staged, like what one thinks of Vietnam having never been here. Still, the bún chả itself was good. One young expat announced it was “better than expected”, as he eyed the tacky decor.
It is commonly known across Hanoi that in order to find the best food, one should look for the busiest local stands.
Bún Chả Ta’s menu offers a variety of meal combinations. One combo features three different kinds of nem rán: pork, chicken and seafood. “The seafood one is an assault to the taste buds,'' the young man noted as he dipped another nem rán into the sauce. “It doesn’t blend well with the other flavors in the dish.” The combo costs 140,000 VND- an outlandish price for one of Hanoi’s staple dishes. However, if you’d like to know what it is that makes bún chả special, Bún Chả Ta offers cooking classes for $32 USD per person.
It is commonly known across Hanoi that in order to find the best food, one should look for the busiest local stands. Bún Chả Tuyết 34 in Ba Đình is overflowing with content people devouring meals during lunchtime. The buzz of several fans fills the air, but they are no match for the heat that pours in from grills outside. The owner scurries customers inside and seats them around packed tables. A staircase lined with shoes disappears into the second floor above the restaurant, a sign that the family lives above. The best bún chả is served at places like this: family owned and passed down for generations.
Bún chả is served within moments, in contrast to the twenty minute wait at Bún Chả Ta. The grilled pork patties, wrapped in seaweed, feature hints of smoke and charcoal. This is a very garlicky bún chả, thanks to the spoonfuls swimming in each bowl of sauce. The price for a meal here is on average with Hanoi’s busier stalls- bún chả costs 50,000 VND with an additional 10,000 VND/each for nem rán.
As bún chả’s popularity grows, restaurants across the city have found new ways to play with the city’s signature dish.
In Tây Hồ, Bún Chả Mai Anh is one of the best known bún chả spots in the neighborhood. Though it is missing the distinctive charcoal grilled flavor of Bún Chả Tuyết 34, the nem rán made here are a local favorite. Bún Chả Hương Liên, where Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate, was the first to garner international fame. Nguyen Thi Lien, one of the owners, recalled that she had been told that some government officials would be visiting, but told Vietcetara, “[we] had no idea that the U.S. President himself will be heading over here for dinner.” The restaurant now offers a Combo Obama, which includes bún chả, nem hải sản (seafood fried spring roll), and a Hanoi beer for 105,000 VND.
As bún chả’s popularity grows, restaurants across the city have found new ways to play with the city’s signature dish. Mad Society serves bún chả with “a little modern twist to the dish.” The owners tell us that they consider themselves to be daring people. “We ponder how to combine traditional flavors, how to be playful with the taste buds.” Bún chả here is served already combined, using ingredients such as lemongrass, which are included in bún chả’s Central and Southern cousin, bún thịt nướng.
For them, presentation is as important as taste and they create flowers shaped out of carrots and herbs to garnish the dish before pouring in the sauce out of a traditional Vietnamese teapot.
Thach Lam poetically and empathetically writes, “In the thousand year old Thang Long, is [bún chả] the most precious object?”
Bún Chả Burger takes this ingenuity a step further with its signature namesake burger. Their menu also features a vegan bún chả burger, bún chả salad and, most recently, bún chả tacos. “I found out that burgers are an easy comfort food in many countries,” explained the owner, Mai Thanh Tran. “I saw that Vietnamese cuisine was a popular attraction to foreigners and it is also a delicious comfort food. I started to think of how to bridge the gap between Vietnamese cuisine and international food.” Their burgers cost 105,000 to 139,000 VND.
Bún chả has even now found its way onto pizza. Three Seasons Restaurant’s Bún Chả Pizza combines the authentic flavors of charcoal grilled meat patties, which are minced on top of the crust with cheese and herbs. One local reviewer described their initial hesitancy, but said they were then delightfully surprised at the flavors.
In 36 Streets of Hanoi, Thach Lam poetically and empathetically writes, “In the thousand year old Thang Long, is [bún chả] the most precious object?” Whether enjoyed in the original form or in one of its many modern variations, bún chả remains intrinsically, and quintessentially, Hanoian.
Bún Chả Ta
21 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Bún Chả Tuyết 34
34 Hàng Than, Nguyễn Trung Trực, Ba Đình, Hà Nội
Bún Chả Mai Anh
47 Xuân Diệu, Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội
Bún Chả Hương Liên
24 Lê Văn Hưu, Phan Chu Trinh, Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội
4F Somerset West Point, 2 Đường Tây Hồ, Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội
Bún Chả Burger
43B Trúc Bạch, Ba Đình, Hà Nội
Three Seasons Restaurant
70 Lý Thường Kiệt, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội