Long before chefs with fancy certificates from the CIA and stages in uppity French kitchens decided to reimagine classic dishes, long before the New Wave chefs of the 1980s separated the ingredients of a dish onto those giant white discuses they called plates, and before Jacques Derrida, the coiner of the term “deconstruction”, was even a twinkle in his father's eyes, the Vietnamese were deconstructing the dish bún.
Bún is a simple dish, usually translated on the menus at Americanized places as something insipid like “vermicelli bowls”; it's rice noodles, usually at room temperature, with toppings (often grilled meat, fish or seafood), plenty of herbs, and a bowl of nước chấm, the garlicky sweet fish sauce that is one of the best condiments on Earth. You mix it up in a big mess in a bowl, dress it, add chile paste, and consume with gusto.
In Hanoi, though, it arrives separately. The herbs come on a separate plate, the rice noodles arrive, sticky and tangly, on a separate plate, and the topping, which is always grilled pork and grilled patties of minced pork, comes floating in a bowl filled to brimming with nước chấm nem, a variation on the standard sauce that involves vinegar, black pepper and bits of shaved green papaya.
OC has plenty of places to buy bún chả Hà Nội; I was going to eat a bánh xèo one day at lunch at Van Restaurant when I saw what smelled like a great version walk by. A quick order change later, and I was off to the races.
Van has, bar none, the best herb plates in Little Saigon. They're heaped with at least five herbs each, tailored to the dishes your table ordered; it's up to you to know that diếp cá, the “fish mint” that looks like ginkgo leaves, isn't meant to go with your spring rolls, but with your bún chả Hà Nội, along with cilantro, Thai basil, green and purple perilla, mint, and leaf lettuce.
The portions are generous, too; you'll fill four of those little bowls with the noodles, herbs, grilled pork and two pieces of grilled chả, a huge meal by anyone's standards. Unfortunately, the sauce was insipid and the meat had obviously been pre-grilled and just heated up (telltale double marks on the chả). Disappointing–must remember to stick to bánh xèo next time.
My standby for bún chả Hà Nội is Vien Dong, one of the oldest restaurants in Little Saigon, and known for their chả cá Thăng Long, which even drew the attention of our sistren and brethren at LA Weekly's Squid Ink. Vien Dong's bún chả Hà Nội, however, blew me away. The freshly grilled meat and chả (only one piece, ai ya!) aren't as huge a portion, and the herb plate only held lettuce, perilla, mint and cilantro, but the taste of the grill permeates the sauce so much I want to drink the leftovers.
There's a current special on bún chả Hà Nội at Vien Dong, 30% off for dine-in orders, making this a lunch bargain on the order of three sandwiches for $5 or happy hour pho: this bowl of amazing grill hei set me back all of $4.17 plus tax, tip, and a cup of cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). Incidentally, both places serve the quintessential Vietnamese drink the old-fashioned way, with a glass of ice, a spoon, and a coffee cup with a phin (filter) perched on top.
I love the bánh xèo at Van, and will continue to eat there, but for right now, Vien Dong is the undisputed winner of this Dueling Dishes.
Vien Dong, 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-8253; Van Restaurant, 14122 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 530-6858.