Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Bún chả Hanoi is a quintessential Northern Vietnamese dish that brings together smoky, succulent meat patties and pork belly slices in an umami-rich dipping sauce with tender vermicelli noodles, vibrant herbs, and crunchy pickles for a comforting and satisfying meal.

Long before bún chả shot to international fame in May 2016, when former president Barack Obama and the late chef Anthony Bourdain dined at Bún Chả Hương Liên for an episode of Parts Unknown, this humble Northern Vietnamese dish was a staple at our house.  When the episode aired, my family, along with millions of other Vietnamese, watched with our eyes glued to the TV as one of the most powerful figures in the world sat on a blue plastic chair and enjoyed a humble Vietnamese meal, an image unlike anything we’d ever seen of a US president.

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While phở stands at the top of the Vietnamese culinary pantheon, bún chả is a close second for many Northern Vietnamese, especially my dad. As he often reminisced, “Bún chả stalls were everywhere. Biking home from school, just the billowing wisps of smoke made me salivate before I could see the meat sizzling over the small charcoal brazier. While your nose savors the aroma of the meat, the first taste tells you if the broth is good. Then let yourself be seduced by the meat along with noodles and fresh herbs.” Growing up in San Jose, my mom made bún chả often, more so than phở because phở restaurants were ubiquitous in San Jose while none existed for Northern Vietnamese food. 

On a recent trip to northern Vietnam, I set out to find bún chả as exemplary as my dad’s description from childhood. Following the maze of Hanoi’s old quarter, I searched for bún chả everywhere, from street vendors in narrow alleys to more established restaurants–even the restaurant featured in that Parts Unknown episode, Bún Chả Hương Liên.

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Each time I ordered bún chả, I anxiously waited for an explosion of flavors to happen. But the magic didn’t appear; the bún chả tasted no different from what I had back home. 

Despite my repeated disappointment, I persisted. Following the recommendation of our hotel receptionist, I made my way to Bún Chả Đắc Kim, a local gem established in 1965. The distinct aroma of grilled meat imbued with charcoal fire attracted my attention as I got closer. My mouth started salivating even before I sat down. I ordered the typical combo of bún chả and crab spring rolls. A familiar bowl of charred minced pork patties and crispy pork belly pieces bathed in steaming dipping sauce arrived. Among the typical meats, though, were a few pieces of patty wrapped in some kind of green leaf, different from any other bún chả I’ve tried . 

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As I tried the different pieces of meat, I asked one of the cooks what the leaves were. She generously told me they were betel leaves (lá lốt) and jelly leaves (sương sâm). Both leaves made the patties incredibly fragrant, while the betel leaves imparted a completely different flavor to the pork patties, reminiscent of grilled beef in betel leaves (bò lá lốt). 

When I tasted the dipping sauce, it was completely unfamiliar. While there was a hint of fish sauce, it was incredibly light and fleeting, unlike other places where the sauce was either bland, too sweet, or vinegary. Rather than a diluted version of fish sauce, it tasted like a soup, yet unlike any soup I’ve ever had, drawing me back for spoonful after spoonful. 

Bún Chả Đắc Kim delivered everything that I imagined a delicious bún chả would promise: smoky and juicy pork patties and slices of pork belly bursting with umami flavor and submerged in a light, soupy dipping sauce that was good enough to drink by the glass. As I sat there devouring my meal, I felt the joy and comfort of this quintessential Hanoian dish that my dad often spoke about. If phở Saigon connected me to my southern roots, then bún chả cemented itself as the gateway to my northern family.

Bún Chả Basics

The juiciness of the pork patties in bún chả starts with the type of ground pork used; it should have at least 20 percent fat. The pork is marinated with sugar, fish sauce, shallot, garlic, and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper. The pepper lends a wonderful heat compared to meat patties from other regions like nem lui Hue, grilled pork paste meatballs, or shrimp paste on sugarcane. To develop the flavors, the mixture should marinate for a minimum of 4 hours. It’s then formed into flattened patties about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick. Keeping the size uniform allows even cooking so the outside is perfectly charred while the inside stays moist and juicy. As much as I would love to share a version of meat patties wrapped in jelly leaves and betal leaves, supply is fickle. If you happen to find these leaves at the Asian grocery stores, definitely snatch them and wrap a few meat patties so you can taste the difference. 

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Choose a fatty cut of pork for the pork slices, either pork belly or pork butt, to prevent the meat from drying out during grilling. I prefer the former because as the fat renders during grilling, the slices become crispy with a wonderful texture. To cut consistent slices from the pork belly, it helps freeze until firm but not frozen solid. When it’s semi-frozen, you can cut it neatly into 1/4-inch slices. The pork slices go into a marinade with fish sauce, water, vegetable oil, sugar, aromatics, and freshly ground pepper. They also need a minimum of 4 hours for the flavors to develop and meld. 

While it might be convenient to cook the pork in a stovetop grill pan, the result will lack the smoky flavor and char essential to bún chả. Both types of meat taste best grilled. Most bún chả restaurants use a charcoal grill and a metal grilling basket. With one hand, the griller constantly flips a metal grilling basket tightly packed with meat over a charcoal fire while fanning the flame with the other hand to get the char just right. As the fat renders, it hits the charcoal and disperses a tantalizing fragrance that draws a crowd. 

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Even on a home grill, I highly recommend using a metal grilling basket; otherwise, the patties and pork belly slices will fall through the grill grate. A basket also makes flipping the pieces of meat more efficient, given that they need to be turned every minute, since turning the meat frequently allows even cooking and prevents burning.

The Sauce (Nước Chấm)

While the pork is integral to bún chả, it’s the dipping sauce (nước chấm) that makes or breaks the meal. To understand what makes a great dipping sauce, I spent some time with Cuong Pham, the founder of Red Boat Fish Sauce, at his barrel house in Phu Quoc. Traditional fish sauce is made from small fish like anchovies layered with salt and kept in barrels for months as they ferment. Over time, they release the amber-colored glutamate-rich liquid that gets filtered and bottled into the fish sauce sold at your local supermarket. 

During my visit, I got to taste fish sauce at different stages of fermentation, from three months to six, nine, and 12 months. The three-month fish sauce was pungent and harsh—a complete assault on the palate—while the fish sauce aged for 12 months was nuanced and more mellow. Pham credited his high-quality fish sauce to fresh ingredients, the aging process, and the unique climate of Phu Quoc. 

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Nowadays, most fish sauce companies have ditched the traditional method of salting and fermenting for convenience and profit by blending chemicals, anchovy powder, salt, sweetener, and sugar in the lab to produce larger quantities of fish sauce. Consequently, not all fish sauces are created equal. Pham recommended looking at the ingredients, their origin, and the degrees (°N) on the label, which represent the protein content in the fish sauce. The higher the value, the higher the protein content, and thus the savory profile and umami it lends to the finished dish.

The dipping sauce of bún chả is served warm to steaming hot, which sets it apart from the room-temperature dipping sauce of other vermicelli noodle bowls. At Bún Chả Đắc Kim, the dipping sauce was boiling when the cook ladled it into the bowl containing the meat. Given how fatty the patties and pork slices are, the high temperature prevents fat droplets from coagulating at the top. 

For the dipping sauce, I recommend using a fish sauce made by the traditional method. Commercial fish sauces blended with additives tend to have an unpleasant aftertaste. I tested different ratios of fish sauce to sugar and water and found that a fixed ratio does not work because the salt content varies between brands. It’s better to boil the ingredients together, taste, and adjust as needed, keeping in mind the sauce should taste lightly sweet and savory from the amalgamation with the juices and char of the grilled meat. In Vietnam, bún chả restaurants typically have limes or kumquats, vinegar, and additional fish sauce at the table so diners can adjust the flavor to suit their palate.

How to Eat Bún Chả

To eat bún chả, taste the dipping sauce first before adding other condiments or accompaniments like raw garlic or sliced bird’s eye chile. I prefer the garlicky kick and heat from the raw garlic and freshly ground peppercorns over the sharp heat from the bird’s eye chile. Add fresh herbs to the bowl and throw a small heap of vermicelli noodles in the dipping sauce. Take your chopsticks and pick up the noodles along with meat, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs. The contrast of textures and flavors from pickled vegetables and refreshing herbs, tender vermicelli noodles, and umami from the succulent meat make every bite fun and memorable.

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For the Pork Patties: In a large bowl, combine ground pork, shallots, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and pepper and mix well. Cover bowl and refrigerate mixture for at least 4 and up to 24 hours.

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For the Pork Belly: Using a very sharp knife, slice semi-frozen pork belly into 2-inch-long, 1/4-inch-thick slices.

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In another large bowl, combine hot water and sugar and stir until sugar has dissolved. Add fish sauce, vegetable oil, scallions, shallot, garlic, and pepper and whisk to combine. Add pork belly slices and toss well to coat. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 and up to 24 hours.

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For the Pickled Carrot and Kohlrabi: In small bowl, stir water, rice vinegar, and sugar until sugar has dissolved. Add sliced carrot and kohlrabi and let sit at room temperature until pickled, 2 hours.

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For the Dipping Sauce: In a small saucepan, combine water, sugar, and fish sauce. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then boil for 5 minutes. Keep hot. (If making ahead of time, reheat before serving.)

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To Grill the Meats: When ready to grill, remove pork mixture and pork belly from fridge. Weigh out about 2 ounces of pork mixture for each patty. Using oiled hands, form pork mixture into small patties, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick. Place formed patties on baking sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper.

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Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, turn on all the burners of a gas grill to high, close grill, and preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grill grate.

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Brush both sides of pork patties with vegetable oil. Transfer 6 pork patties to a metal grilling basket. Grill over direct heat, turning every minute, until cooked through and browned on the outside, about 8 minutes. Transfer cooked patties to a platter or baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pork patties. Keep warm. 

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Transfer pork belly slices to now-empty grilling basket. Grill over direct heat, turning every minute until cooked through and browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to the platter with the patties. Repeat with remaining pork belly slices. Keep warm.

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For Serving: Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Drain and run under cold water. Drain again and set aside.

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Place the noodles, lettuce, and herbs on a platter. Place the garlic and sliced bird’s eye chiles in separate small bowls.

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Divide grilled pork patties and pork belly slices into 4 bowls. Add pickled vegetables. Ladle about 1 cup of hot dipping sauce into each bowl. Serve immediately with noodles, fresh herbs,raw garlic, and bird’s eye chiles alongside. 

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Special Equipment

Grilling basket

Notes

Make sure to use a traditionally made fish sauce; I prefer Red Boat brand.

For the rice vermicelli, Three Ladies is a good brand. 

Green papaya makes a great substitute for kohlrabi.

The listed fresh herbs are available at most Asian grocery stores or well stocked markets. Any combination of the listed fresh herbs that are available to you will work in this recipe. Cilantro may be substituted for the Vietnamese coriander (rau răm).

Make-Ahead and Storage

The vermicelli rice noodles can be prepared a few hours before assembling the bowl.

The meat can be marinated the night before. 

The dipping sauce can be made the day before and warmed up when ready to use.

The pickled carrot and kohlrabi can be made up to 48 hours ahead. Refrigerate them until ready to use.

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