What is comfort food, really? For most Houstonians, it's dishes like fried chicken and meatloaf. And while I don’t dispute that at all, it got me thinking: Isn’t it just food that evokes a feeling of being cared for? Food that makes you feel happy and centered? That picks you up when you're having a down day, but hits the spot in a way that's inexplicably satisfying?
Bun cha Hanoi is my comfort food.
I have no idea when, exactly, it became that thing that makes me feel like my mom is giving me a hug. But for several years now, every time I go home, bun cha is the one dish that I not only request, but order and eat over and over again.
I can't even say that I grew up eating it, because although it is a dish that hails from my parents’ hometown of Hanoi, it's not something that I ever recall having over family dinner. In fact, my introduction to bun cha was probably at a northern Vietnamese restaurant in Orange County when I was away at college.
Nonetheless, bun cha speaks to me. I liken it to fish sauce. It’s part of my heritage, my ethnic identity as a woman of northern Vietnamese descent.
Originating in the Vietnamese capital, the dish is essentially a deconstructed version of the ubiquitous bun thit nuong, or chargrilled pork vermicelli, that you find on just about any Vietnamese restaurant menu. The actual name of the dish is just “bun cha,” where “bun” means for the noodles and “cha” refers to pork patties and slices of pork. Hanoi is added to the name of the dish to signify its place of origin.
Made of chargrilled pork patties and pork belly steeped in a sweet and savory fish sauce, bun cha Hanoi is served with thin rice vermicelli, vegetables and herbs on the side. There are also sweet pickles made of carrot and green papaya, usually steeped in the sauce with the meat.
Trouble is, though it's a fairly simple dish in terms of ingredients, it’s an easy dish to execute improperly. For years now, I’ve tried just about every version of bun cha that I could get my hands on in Houston, and could never find one that hit the spot.
At Thien Thanh, the beloved banh cuon restaurant in Chinatown that’s been a favorite of Vietnamese locals for more than 20 years, though their banh cuon still remains some of best in the city, their bun cha is just okay. I’ve tried it several times and every time it’s the same.
The pork they use is not pork belly, but regular pork shoulder. The meat is kind of hard and dry and not that flavorful. The patties, likewise, are not that memorable—round discs of ground pork that are not distinctive in any way. And their nuoc mam pha, the fish sauce preparation that the meat is steeped in, is always a little too salty for my taste, not exhibiting that sweet and salty balance that is so important in making the dish pop.
Over at Thien An in Midtown, another staple Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, my order of bun cha was not much different than the version at Thien Thanh, the overriding impression being just “meh”—acceptable, but not something I’d return for.
I was optimistic about Banh Cuon Hoa 2 in Chinatown, which has pictures of their bun cha in the window. Though great attention was paid to the plating of the dish — it was the most attractive bun cha presentation I’ve encountered in Houston over the years—I wish they’d paid more attention to making it taste outstanding. Instead, the meat was not tender and the marinade rather ho-hum, with a lingering greasiness that left me strangely dissatisfied.
Another time at Kim Phat, a noodle house specializing in hu tieu, the encounter was a total fail. Not only was the service abominable—some of the worst I’ve had at an Asian restaurant (and I’m not that picky to begin with)—but to add insult to the injury, the noodles were overcooked and soggy, and the vegetables came to my table sopping wet while still managing to taste unclean.
So imagine how happy I was when I walked into Pho Tan Loc—a strip mall pho joint in Sugar Land that was so nondescript that I’ve never once paid attention to it in the two and a half years that it’s been there—to find a version of bun cha Hanoi that immediately conjured up all those contented, warm and fuzzy feelings of coming home. Cue my inner happy dance.
Served on a large round white plate, the bun cha Hanoi at Pho Tan Loc, at first glance, is similar to presentations that you’ll find elsewhere. The cha is served in a small wide-rimmed white bowl—about the same size as a rice bowl. To one side of the bowl is a large tuft of bright, obviously fresh lettuce and myriad herbs. To the other, a small mound of springy white rice vermicelli noodles.
Assembling the noodles, pickles and vegetables (you break up the lettuce and herbs into small pieces) in a bowl, I drizzled the nuoc mam pha over everything and mixed up the noodles to evenly distribute sauce. Then I took a bite of the cha patty, followed by a mouthful of the noodles. And, wham! My senses exploded with recognition. This was the version I’d been searching for all this time, a version where they got everything right.
The pork patties (there were three to this portion, where other places often only give you two) were large-ish in size, each bite succulent and tender, the proportion of fat to minced pork just enough to boost the flavor without feeling overly unctuous. The edges of the patty were slightly charred, lending that pleasing dimension of smokiness to the already well-marinated meat. Delicious.
The pork belly slices—and this is where a lot of the other places fell decidedly short—was also just right. Where other places might just use thit nuong chargrilled pork shoulder, or even skip the chargrilled part altogether by oven-cooking the meat, this was true pork belly. Pork belly which had had been marinated long enough to soak up the caramelized fish sauce flavor, and then grilled until charred at the edges, so that each bite tasted like the Vietnamese version of a thick-cut bacon.
In the same way that al dente pasta is so important to Italian food, the vermicelli was cooked perfectly, too—bouncy and light, and not clumped together. The pickles were crisp with well-balanced acidity, while the lettuce and herbs were nice and clean, with a good fresh snap.
I could find no fault with the nuoc mam pha fish sauce either. Where others might make it too concentrated and salty, this one was simply wonderful—its taste mild, with enough sweetness to soften the pungent fish sauce base while still fairly bursting with umami.
“Finally! I found authentic bun cha Hanoi in Sugar Land!” I tweeted excitedly after I’d taken several bites, and it was only as I was checking out at the counter that I figured out why.
“Ba cu la nguoi goc Hanoi” (My mother-in-law is from Hanoi) the owner told me sagely as I complimented her on the dish. And seriously, that explained everything about why this version of the dish just got me right away.
You know how you’re always searching for that ideal of a dish that someone’s grandmother or aunt or mom made? The one brings that brings on those hazy, dream-like, nostalgic visions of being a small kid in a kitchen next to a gray-haired matron who is alternately stern and loving, then having her reward you with a plate or a bowl of something that she made especially for you?
This was what I tasted in the bun cha Hanoi at Pho Tan Loc in Sugar Land. You can bet for sure that I’ll going back, for my comfort food.