Surveying any given street in the nation’s capital, it’s impossible not to notice the similarities that link many of the shop fronts – people here seem oddly content with launching nigh-on identical businesses to their neighbours, inadvertently creating streets where merchants and vendors all specialise in just one product. There’s Hardware Street, the ineffably creepy Mannequin Street, BBQ Chicken Street, Chả Cá Street – home to Hanoi’s best fish dish – and so it should shock precisely no one that Vietnam’s least Vietnamese-looking traditional meal has also formed an impromptu bastion of its own in the form of Bò Bít Tết Street, known to Google Maps as Hòe Nhai.
A big ole hunk of beef steak isn’t what most folks conjure up in their mind’s eye when they think of Vietnamese food, but bò bít tết is precisely that – accompanied by a fried egg, pâté, fries, a baguette and assorted cold vegetables. Despite the distinct lack of noodles, fish sauce, lime or chilli, bò bít tết – a derivative of French steak-frites – remains a popular Vietnamese take on Western cuisine. For over a decade, Hòe Nhai has been home to bò bít tết courtesy of four families who’ve essentially transformed this hidden landscape into a beef-eater’s wet dream.
Pham Hoang Ha was 50 when he opened Hòe Nhai’s first bò bít tết restaurant – Bít Tết Ha Cuc So 6 – back in 2007 and now, at 61 reflects fondly on the earlier days. “I was the first one here, there wasn’t even any food on the street back then. When I opened, there were too many customers, we couldn’t meet the demand, there weren’t even enough seats,” he chuckles away to himself as if this is no longer an issue he faces. “People took my idea and ran with it – they saw it was a good business model.” Pham may have been first to bring bò bít tết to Hòe Nhai, but even he notes that Hanoi’s first iteration of the dish appeared in Hòa Mã, in the district of Hai Bà Trưng. “They were the first as far as I know, I can’t remember when they opened, but their bò bít tết used a much thicker steak and still costs over VND100,000, so I made my steaks thinner to make it available for normal, working people.”
Having filled Hanoi’s bellies with bò bít tết for over a decade, Pham confession that he has no idea about the origins of the meal struck me as odd. “I couldn’t say where it came from, but it’s one of the best thing about Vietnamese people – we’re resourceful,” he flashes a wry grin. “If we taste something delicious, we know what we like about it and we make our own version to suit our tastes.”
It’s a dish that sounds comparatively decadent when contrasted against the humble nature of pho or banh mi, but for Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh, owner of Bít Tết So 5, it’s one that Vietnam has fallen in love with. “Back in the day, it was only for the middle class, even then only on rare occasions, but once I’d tried it, I knew I had to learn how to make it.” So she started her own bò bít tết restaurant shortly after Pham back in 2008, her son has since married another Hòe Nhai restaurateur and shored up a working relationship with one of the competitors, giving Bít Tết So 5 a dominant stance on the street. For Nguyen though, her success lies in the allure of beef, fried eggs and pate. It’s a dish that strikes the right chord with the Vietnamese palette. “It’s more of a food invention learnt from Western cuisine, but we’ve toyed with the recipe and the ingredients to appeal to Vietnamese customers.”
In the door of Bít Tết So 3, Ta Ngoc Lan sits in the shade, slicing vegetables in preparation for the dinner rush. Her son has long since taken over the business, but Ta regularly helps around the restaurant, putting her ten years of expertise to good use. “We got this place opened in 2008, but Hòa Mã seems to be the longest running Bò Bít Tết restaurant – it’s funny that Hòe Nhai ended up becoming Bò Bít Tết Street though!”
Ta’s Bò Bít Tết will set you back a mere VND70,000 – as will the bò bít tết anywhere else on Hòe Nhai. For a taste of that rich gravy over fried beef, it’s worth every dong they’re asking for.