I have mixed feelings about D.I.Y. dining.
Some of my favorite meals involve hot pots or tabletop charcoal barbecuing, and I once spent over half of my lunches in a year at the same salad bar, exploring all the possible varieties of the turkey breast sandwich.
On the other hand, I’ve been eating pho for nearly a decade and I still haven’t mastered the art of doctoring the broth. It seems like every time I find a new pho joint, one of the tableside condiments is missing, or some new paste is present, and I have to learn how to find the balance in my broth all over again.
Some Vietnamese dishes have a habit of arriving at the table in pieces, leaving me to wonder if there are instructions. Even at my most culinarily ambitious, I always feel like I’ve left too much of the accoutrement behind at the end of my meal, and I get reminded of the time the waiter at a shabu joint berated me for not using enough of the steak’s accompanying leafery.
Bihn introduced me to his regular pho haunt in the Sunset, a small restaurant on Irving called Loi’s with a relatively generic description and high volume of lunch traffic. Aside from having some of the cheapest bowls of pho in the city, Loi’s is special for its inclusion of certain Northern Vietnamese dishes. As I’m relatively clueless beyond the first page of Vietnamese restaurant menus, I followed my friend’s cue and ordered the bun cha hanoi.
A bowl of meat arrived with a plate of greens and noodles and a second, empty bowl. Instructions not included.
Bun cha hanoi is vermicelli rice noodles with grilled pork in the Hanoi style. Traditionally the dish is served family-style, a tabletop Vietnamese noodle bar for creative eaters. In my limited experience with the dish, I’ve come to realize that every place with bun cha hanoi on the menu will probably serve it differently, but the principle components of the dish will always be present in one form or another: lettuce, vermicelli, and pork in nuoc mam cham.
At Loi’s, the pork is served both in grilled and meatball form. Together with pickled carrots and daikon, the meat soaks in the nuoc mam cham, adopting the salty/sweet combination of fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, chiles and sugar. Alone, this mixture and assorted meat is too much for one palate, but with noodles, mint, cilantro and a liberal amount of jalapenos and vinegar, a balance can be obtained, if you have what it takes to find it.
A faded box with barred-up windows at the gateway to East Oakland, Pho Ao Sen is one of many worthy pho destinations on International Blvd. While even some westside lovers of Vietnamese food will make the trip to the east side of Lake Meritt for Pho Ao Sen’s pho bo or bun bo hue, it was the existence of bun cha hanoi on the menu that tempted me across the Bay Bridge.
Unlike Loi’s, Pho Ao Sen does not offer pickled jalapenos and red vinegar at the table, and when the bun cha hanoi arrived in front me, I was again at a loss. On one plate arrived the same thin vermicelli, lettuce, mint and cilantro, but the bowl of nuoc mam cham contained stacked pork patties instead of grilled slices and meatballs. These disks of mashed meat, unlike Loi’s meatballs, did not soak in the fish sauce around it, and even at their centers the patties retained a delicious, juicy crisp.
If there is a correct way to assemble and consume bun cha hanoi, then I don’t know it – but even in my misguided efforts to come up with the perfect bite of pork and vermicelli, every mistake tasted plenty delicious anyway. Some people use the lettuce as a wrap for their noodles and meat, as plausible a code of construction as any. I’ve found evidence online to support a more mash-and-mix method to the madness, a theory backed by Tony Bourdain.
But bun cha hanoi comes to the table de-constructed for a reason. There are no instructions except the way mom used to make it. Barring Vietnamese parents, experimentation is encouraged – at least by me, because I’ve found even blind luck is D.I.Y. delicious.
|Loi’s Vietnamese Restaurant
2228 Irving St
San Francisco, CA 94122
|Pho Ao Sen
200 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94606