It has been nine months since I returned from Hanoi (an epic journey documented elsewhere) and I am still haunted by Bun Cha. Many people come back from Vietnam extolling the virtues of Phô but for me it was Bun Cha, a dish I think I ate only once. It is noodles and broth and grilled meat and crispy spring rolls and fresh vegetables and chilis, garlic, and fish sauce. I remember the street stall where I ate it. It was basically in a construction site, built against a wall and covered with a tin roof.
There were metal tables and plastic chairs, sticky sauce bottles and open dishes of chopped garlic and chopped chilis. The family lived in the ramshackle back – we could see their clothes hanging – and they were all out front, impeccably dressed and friendly. I remember thinking if the US Dept. of Health could see this it would have a breakdown. I was utterly delighted.
Ithaca, NY, has not had very good Vietnamese food. For that I have had to go to New Century in Syracuse, a restaurant with a real Vietnamese aesthetic (which is to say not much of an aesthetic at all), that cooks for the rather large Vietnamese community that surrounds it. In Ithaca there are not many Vietnamese and evidently not much demand, at least until Saigon Kitchen opened. Saigon Kitchen has what Americans love – clean lines, photographs of conical hats and bright red baskets along a pristine seashore. There are many Chinese dishes on the menu but the chefs are Vietnamese. At Saigon Kitchen I can get Bun Cha with fresh herbs and chili sauce and lime. It is luscious and comforting and has the five tastes that characterize Vietnamese cuisine – sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter. Bun Cha Gio is my favorite because it is topped with crispy spring rolls. (Bun Cha Heo, with grilled pork, is a close second.) In addition to the balance of the five tastes I like a variety of textures and the crunchy spring rolls are the perfect foil to the soft noodles.
Part of preparing to go to Vietnam was studying with Rosetta Stone so I want to be able to order in Vietnamese. At first I tried to extrapolate from what I knew. ‘Giay,’ which means ‘shoes,’ is pronounced ‘ZI-y.’ So I decided ‘Gio’ would be ‘Zi-o’ or something like ‘zshow.’ (We beginners do want rules we can hang onto.) The waitresses were patient. So I finally asked and was told the ‘g’ was silent and it was something like ‘YA-o.’ I tried imitating the inflections – bun-cha at the same slightly high singsong tone and then scoop the YA-o – and was told I had done it perfectly, which I doubt, but it made me happy.