It’s been a touch wet in Hanoi the last few days.
More than a touch actually, and I kid you not, it started raining inside my bedroom on Sunday, dripping through the panes as sideways rain battered the window.
Hungover, tired and damp, my thoughts turned to a meal that would soothe my throbbing head and make me whole again: comfort food. In the past, I would have pictured one of my father’s roast dinners, featuring mountains of roast potatoes topped with hunks of meat and gravy.
But sorry dad, now I dream of bun cha.
Three years in Hanoi will do that to you though, and if you’ve ever tucked into one of the delightful pork patties in tangy fish sauce, you’ll know why. Almost every article you read about bun cha will include Vietnamese writer Vu Bang’s musing that Hanoi is “transfixed by bun cha”, and while it may be a cliché, it’s true – you might die in Hanoi, but bun cha will live forever.
Vu Bang reckoned the first one opened on Gia Ngu Street in the 1950s, and while that eatery seems to be long gone, there is at least one bun cha spot almost as old as my dad in the Old Quarter.
Bun Cha Dac Kim has been at the same spot at number one Hang Manh Street since 1966, and they have the t-shirts to prove it.
It would be a gross understatement to say Vietnam has changed in those 52 years, but according to current owner Nguyen Thanh Huyen, the bun cha at Dac Kim is still cooked the same way it was back in the 60s.
Huyen first started working in the restaurant in 1975 when her parents ran Dac Kim, and like many businesses in Vietnam it’s still family-run, and Huyen expects to pass the torch to her kids, who also work in the restaurant.
Never mind a family though, Dac Kim gets so busy at any given lunchtime they need an army to staff it. As one of Hanoi’s most famous bun cha spots, it’s often packed with locals and tourists alike, and as with many buildings in Hanoi, Dac Kim is skinny as hell, so things can get hectic at peak hours.
Luckily though, Huyen and her charges run a tight ship and are well-prepared for the lunchtime rush. Each serving of bun cha is prepared on an assembly line which can be seen in the open kitchen, with Huyen spooning piping hot broth into pre-prepared bowls of pork patties and pork belly.
This allows Dac Kim to churn out the hearty meal at a dizzying rate, though rest assured they don’t skimp on quality. Each bite of meat I enjoyed had the comforting, smoky taste I’ve come to love about bun cha, and the portion size was reassuringly colossal.
Huyen isn’t sure if her bun cha eatery is Hanoi’s oldest, but she was able to guess why it’s one of the most popular, “Our food is delicious and reasonably priced, while the restaurant is clean.”
Simple stuff really, and Dac Kim’s success has naturally led to copycats and another bun cha restaurant opened across the road a couple of years ago. This rival joint even has signs up saying ‘Number one bun cha’, perhaps trying to fool customers into thinking they’re at number one Hang Manh, Dac Kim’s listed address.
Of course imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Huyen didn’t seem too worried about the competition. Rightly so too, as Dac Kim was doing brisk trade long before the late Anthony Bourdain and the last US President brought bun cha to the international stage.
“We had many foreign customers before Obama came”, she said. Of course it’s not just foreign folk who travel far and wide to sample Huyen’s recipe. Nguyen Minh Anh and her mother travelled all the way from the suburban district of Cau Dien to eat at Dac Kim, no doubt passing umpteen bun cha joints on the 10km journey. The mother-daughter duo did so because of Dac Kim’s fame, and they certainly weren’t disappointed.
This encapsulates the best compliment I could give this joint, despite fame and success, Dac Kim and Huyen haven’t forgotten the secret to their success: damn tasty bun cha.
Bun Cha Dac Kim can be found at 1 Hàng Mành, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm