Saturday, 21 December 2013

Bun Cha Dac Kim, Hanoi, Vietnam (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 27, Part 1 & Day 28, Part 2)

What if I told you one of the most delicious burgers in the world was not served in bread, but instead came as part of a noodle soup dish? If your concept of a burger relies on it being inside a bun the you might think I'm crazy. That is of course until you've had the pleasure of eating a bowl of bun cha.

Bun cha is a specialty of Hanoi which consists of pork patties and unctuous pork pieces grilled over coals served with fresh herbs and chilli, rice noodles and a salty-sweet broth/dipping sauce. Many a Vietnamese food guide suggests that if you're gonna try one thing in Hanoi it has to be this dish, and as devotees of all things pork Alissa and I were definitely not going to miss out on this - especially after my parents had made us a bowl of bun cha earlier in the year. 

When planning out our meals in Hanoi, I realised that the hotel we were staying at after our return from Ha Long Bay was conveniently located 1 minute away from Bun Cha Dac Kim, a restaurant so famous and synonymous with the dish that it literally is what you see when you look up bun cha on Wikipedia. Considering its close proximity to the hotel it was odd that they were not the hotel's recommendation for bun cha, however trusting my research ahead of the restaurant list they handed us Alissa and I decided to stick to the plan and dine at Dac Kim. 

We were ushered to the second floor of the three-storey restaurant. Being specialists making only one dish the only thing we needed to order was some local beer, while the components of the dish were brought out and placed on the table for us to share:

The rice noodles. Where pho uses a flat, fettuccine-like noodle, bun cha's is more like rice spaghetti.

A massive bowl of mixed herbs - basil, mint, coriander and some other local herbs I couldn't put a name to, plus a bit of lettuce for good measure. The quantity served is way too much for the dish and there was heaps of herbs leftover at the end of the meal (more on that later). 

Chilli and garlic, again in a very generous quantity that is way more than you'll ever need.

The broth/dipping sauce. As you may notice it has slices of fruit floating in it (green papaya I'm told), giving it a unique sweetness. 

We were given individual serves of the hero of the dish - the pork. The pork came in two forms - the small patties and slices of a fatty cut of pork sitting in more of the broth and dipping sauce.

As a bonus, bun cha is served with a delicious side dish of nem cua be, a crispy crab-filled spring roll. 

So when you've assembled a bowl of bun cha, how does it taste? Incredible. The smokiness of the coal-grilled fatty pork gave it a bacon-like flavour, and the pork patties were so deliciously porky and flavoursome that it immediately made me question beef's dominance as the burger meat of choice. Being such a massive fan of salty and sweet coming together in a dish, Alissa went so far as to declare this to be better than ramen. I wouldn't go that far, but for a dish to so expertly combine salty, sweet and umami flavours with the rich unctuousness of the pork and the kick of the chilli in there for good measure, this has got to be one of the all-time great noodle dishes. 

Special mention must be made for the addictive side dish of nem cua be, every bit as good as the bun cha. The crispy skin with the crab, mushroom and glass noodle filling was a real revelation that is far more delicious than the ubiquitous spring roll seen at Chinese restaurants throughout the world. 

One word of warning though - there are some questionable hygiene practices at Bun Cha Dac Kim. Remember how I mentioned that there'd be leftover herbs? When we went back for lunch at the restaurant the next day we saw what happens to all the leftover herbs - they go back into a central pile, are then scooped back out onto a new plate and served again to another customer. The same goes for the chilli and the garlic. We didn't get sick here, but it is something to watch out for.

The Verdict: Excellent +
When we returned to our hotel, the concierge had seen us coming out of Bun Cha Dac Kim and he asked us how we knew to go there. I explained that as a foodie I'd done my research, and he admitted that they were one of the most well-regarded bun cha places in town but that some tourists had not liked it. I'm guessing that the hygiene issue is probably a deal breaker for a lot of people, however if you're willing to turn a blind eye to the reusing of the herbs, chilli and garlic then Bun Cha Dac Kim could not come more highly recommended. 

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