Eating Bun Cha Ha Noi at Pho Bang
Bun, otherwise known as rice noodles, are ubiquitous at Vietnamese restaurants throughout the city. New York is rife with bun thit nuong -- a large bowl filled with rice noodles, grilled pork or beef, pickled vegetables, lettuce, and herbs. So we were very happy to see on Pho Bang's menu Bun Cha Ha Noi -- the Northern/Hanoian rendition of the noodle dish.
Unlike the Southern-style bun dishes, bun cha ha noi comes in three parts: a plate of rice noodles, a bowl filled with warm nuoc cham (a fish sauce-based sauce) and grilled (ideally over a charcoal fire) pork patties and strips of pork, accompanied by an herb plate (which in Hanoi will be a combo of lettuce, perilla, mint, cilantro, and maybe some basil). You dip the noodles in the sauce and take bites from the meats and herbs. It's all good fun, not to mention delicious.
However, despite being one of Hanoi's signature dishes, it's very uncommon in New York City. So when we spotted it on the menu at Pho Bang, we had to order it. Unfortunately, while it wasn't necessarily bad, it didn't quite achieve a Proustian madeleine-worthy magic, transporting us back to our days in Hanoi. The dish suffered from two main failings. The first was the herb plate, which was only a few sprigs of mint and several huge lettuce leaves. The lack of variety was disappointing, and ginormous lettuce leaves are tricky to eat. The restaurant could at least tear them up into small pieces for customers. Second, rather than individual bite-sized patties, we faced two huge pork patties that were on the dry side.
By no means was the dish inedible, but it wasn't quite the authentic bun cha ha noi that lives on in our memory. Props to Pho Bang for being one of the few restaurants serving it, but we longed for more overall flavor and fattier pork patties with more char accents. Fork in the Road readers -- if you know where we can find a great, Hanoi-style bun cha, let us know in the comments.
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