I was always a townie but I think by now I have to admit to being a city boy despite growing up in the midlands. What makes the city such an appealing concept for me is the mix of cultures rubbing off each other.
Chaotic Moore St gladdens my heart more than any street in the city with its phone repair shops mingling with outlets selling okra, dumplings, and hair extensions, and, of course, the Moore St women themselves with the cheapest vegetables and flowers and fish in the city — and this is where you will find Bun Cha.
I have not been to Vietnam but I have trawled through the best of the Vietnamese restaurants in Paris. There is one dish I had not noticed on my Parisian trips until recently — bun cha. I’m not sure much of the world had heard of it a few years ago, but it now rivals pho as the best known dish from Hanoi thanks to that time Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama sat on rickety chairs in a tiny bright restaurant in Hanoi. Google it — it will bring you back to a happier time in the world when American presidents were charming and embraced other cultures, and when Anthony Bourdain was alive and encouraging the world to travel and break bread.
Eating can be a political act.
Bun Cha restaurant is a bright and welcoming space (and horror of horrors) the menu has pictures — don’t let this put you off in the slightest. The wine list is short, inexpensive, and quite well chosen with three whites that should work with the food — the Aussie riesling in particular. There is also a prosecco and rosé, and from the two reds we chose Tommasi Valpolicella (€25) — packed with cheery cherry fruits that matched well. There is also a selection of non-alcoholic drinks including coconut water and lychee mint tea and some fruity cocktails such as apricot vodka with rice wine.
We began with a selection of goi cuan rice paper rolls (€4-4.50) — translucent rice paper filled with cooked meat, salad, vegetables, and maybe rice noodles, and served at room temperature. Traditionally these are eaten by wrapping them first in some salad and mint leaf and then dipped in sauce such as peanut or spicy soy sauce or more typically nuoc cham which I feel typifies Vietnamese food more than almost anything — light and refreshing and flavourful despite being a simple dilution of vinegar, sugar, lime, chilli, and pungent fish sauce.
The rolls were just about perfect, light and refreshing and with nicely balanced flavours — the prawn version was my favourite but there was stiff competition from the tofu and beef versions. We also ordered some fried sour sweet spring rolls which had that lovely flaky crisp coating that leaves typical Chinese spring rolls in the shade.
Bun Cha is the correct name for the restaurant as I think it is also their best dish — slices of pork belly fried crisp, and exuding a gorgeous smoky barbecue flavour served with slightly sticky rice noodles and the ubiquitous nuoc cham dipping sauce in vinegar. You simply mix the sauce with the meat and noodles and eat it in chunks with your chopsticks — it’s delicious.
My pho bo soup (€10.80) with beef (and I think tripe) had a fine light broth, creamy slippery rice noodles and lots of fresh vegetables. On its own, it was a little bland but just needed a couple of spoonfuls of the accompanying chilli mix and some soy to transform it into a food of the gods. The bowl could have worked as a mixing bowl and I took half of it home with me. Southern beef noodles also had that magical lightness of touch, pungent rich meat, brisk sauce, and light salad and vegetables.
Bun Cha doesn’t have desserts but we were already stuffed so it was a mercy.
A note on the menu tells you that Vietnamese food is healthy and will ‘keep you looking young’ and give you ‘strong healthy hair’ — I don’t know about that but I can tell you it is delicious and you need to visit.