Vietnamese food was thrust into the international spotlight when the late chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain joined President Barack Obama for a $6 dinner at a local canteen in Hanoi. The now-famous meal? Bún chả, an iconic pork noodle dish, washed down with cold beers.
Bringing together bún (rice vermicelli noodles) and chả (pork patties), the dish is believed to have originated in the early 20th century in Hanoi—once described by 20th century Vietnamese food writer Vu Bang as “a town transfixed by bún chả.” Though it’s sometimes referred to as a noodle soup, it’s more of a noodle salad in that the noodles are served cold in a bowl, and the meat comes in another bowl of warm fish sauce, which is used as a dipping condiment but is sometimes called a broth.
The secret to the dish is the duo of sliced pork belly along with charcoal-grilled pork patties cooked low and slow. The smokiness and savoriness of the meat is balanced by pickled carrots and daikon and vinegar in the sauce. And as with most Vietnamese dishes, bún chả also comes with a plate of fresh lettuce and aromatic herbs like Thai basil and perilla leaves, which are meant to be ripped off the stem and added directly to your bowl.
Also available for sauce customization are raw garlic and bird’s eye chili. When all twirled together with the noodles, the dish boasts umami, sweetness, tanginess, and herbaceousness.
While the restaurant that hosted the duo now contains a plexiglass-encased shrine of the table they sat at, this 25-year-old eatery is our pick for Hanoi’s best take on the dish. Head down a narrow alley—where the restaurant’s vendors manning charcoal grills, sorting herbs, and preparing drinks—to find an area with plastic tables and stools. As soon as you sit down, you’ll be asked how many orders of bún chả you want, and whether you want them with nem cua bể, crispy fried crab spring rolls, a typical accompanying side dish. (We recommend saying yes).
Know Before You Go
As with many noodle soup dishes in Vietnam, bún chả is a morning and early afternoon affair. The restaurant is open from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., so if you want to get your bún chả fix in Hanoi, plan to go for breakfast or lunch. The restaurant is cash only.