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The "Other" Vietnamese Noodle -- A Quick Survey of Bun in Vancouver

Pics: http://picasaweb.google.com/gustibus....

As I write this, Vancouver is experiencing June-uary weather - still cold enough to warrant a bowl of Pho for lunch. However, I have long switched into my summer cheap lunch - Bun ("boon"). For the unitiated, bun is essentially a rice noodle salad topped with (usually) grilled meat and other items such as spring rolls. My favorite type of bun is topped with spring roll and grilled pork - or Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio. Most menus will offer grilled beef, chicken, shredded pork, tofu, etc.

Following the footsteps of Vancouver gastronaut and Pho afficianado Knightafter (Knightafter, if you are reading this, you are an inspiration!), I have set out to do a mini-survey of Bun in this town. There is just NO WAY I can provide the same coverage as Knightafter who - at the last count - has cataloged over 43 Pho restuarants in this city (I think he is actually close to 50 at this point). He is a man on a mission. http://www.eatvancouver.net/2008/06/0...

My paltry little survey attempt is currently at seven shops...I will update as I eat more Bun.

There doesn't seem to be a canonical bun...every shop does it differently. After sampling the bun from about four or five shops, I believe I have come up with my own personal criteria...

What do I look for in a Bun (specifically Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio)?

1 Fresh Noodles reconstituted in fresh water - some places do not change their water often enough which detracts from the ricey-ness of the noodles. It actually tastes " off or dishwatery" if the water is not changed often. The noodles should be the "thin" kind and not the wider "pho" kind. The noodles, IMO, should be at room temperature or slightly below. I don't care for tepid vermicelli.

2 Great grilled meat - good char, good flavour (most often with lemongrass), tender and sweet

3 Great spring roll - some places use Chinese style wrappers, Vietnamese rice paper, or rarely Banh Xeo crepe tinted yellow with turmeric

4 Good ratio of fresh crispy greens to vermicelli - shredded cucumber, iceberg lettuce and bean sprouts seem to be the most common. The addition of quick pickled carrots and daikon is also common. Bun should taste and crunch more like a salad, IMO.

5 Good herbs - Mint/Basil, Cilantro and/or Scallion - The mint/basil is often spearmint, Vietnamese mint/basil, rarely Perilla and almost never sawtooth herb (a common addition in Vietnam). I would love to have some others that are commonly available in Vietnam (many of which, BTW, is available at nearly all the Vietnamese grocers along Kingsway

)

6 Freshly made dipping sauce (Nuoc Mam) - with Nuoc Nam (fish sauce), Vinegar, Sugar and Water. Often with slivers of carrot and daikon.

7 Freshly toasted and crushed peanuts - this makes a huge difference, IMO

8 Presentation - Bun should look colourful and beautiful.

Pics: http://picasaweb.google.com/gustibus....

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  1. Co Do - 4/4 - Best one so far, good all around bun. Best deal at $6.50 and it comes with a dessert! The pork is reddish - annatto perhaps? Red food coloring? Lots of crushed nuts.

    Cuu Long - 4/4 - Excellent pork with a great char. Friendly family running the shop..which also serves great Pho.

    Pho Thai Hoa - 3.5/4 - excellent presentation, good ratio noodle to greens, uses spearmint.

    Hai Yen - 3/4 - Great rolls which use rice paper, but little pork. Carrots are shredded but not pickled.

    Thanh Thao - 2.5/4 - average bun. Lots of greens, pickle . Very little pork. Spring rolls use Chinese wrapper.

    Pho Le - 2/4 - almost no greenery, very chewy pork (but lots of it!), this one uses banh xeo wrappers for the rolls - which were also quite average

    Kim Saigon - 1.4/4 - one taste of the noodles killed this one for me - they did not change the water enough and it tasted dirty.

    Photos of current top three....
    Co Do, Cuu Long, Pho Thai Hoa

     
     
     
    11 Replies
    1. re: fmed

      fmed, you are the answer to my unposted prayers! I have been looking for a place with rice paper spring rolls for that unparalleled crunch and lightness. Do the veggies ever not come under the noodles? I wasn't aware.

      1. re: fmed

        Ah, now we're talking. I've never liked Pho, so I've always ordered Dry Egg Noodles with additional sides of grilled meat at Vietnamese restaurants.

        My current favorites are Bon Cafe and Le Do for their lemongrass chicken and pork brochette respectively. Of the places you've listed, I've only visited Pho Thai Hoa. So, I am curious how these 2 places compares.

        My pet peeve with Vietnamese restaurants is the amount of MSG they use. Almost without fail, I get thirsty soon after my meals.

        Perhaps when you have time, do a survey of the "Other" "Other" Vietnamese Noodle, namely Dry Egg Noodles ;) My current favorite is Thai Son.

        1. re: kwailan4

          >> Perhaps when you have time, do a survey of the "Other" "Other" Vietnamese Noodle, namely Dry Egg Noodles ;) My current favorite is Thai Son.

          LOL. Well, Laksa is still next on my list.

        2. re: fmed

          Song Huong - 4/4 - I tried the bun bo ba mon instead of the bun thit nuong cha goi at the urging of the waitress. She told me that they are known for this dish - so it's a bit of a signature dish. It's a bun topped with three kinds of strongly spiced and grilled rolled ground beef served with a spicy anchovy sauce. The sauce uses mam nem - Vietnamese anchovy sauce (essentially an unfiltered nuoc nam). One of the rolls ("bo la lot") is first wrapped in La Lot leaves first then grilled. The usual substitute for this herb is grape leaf. All of that on top of vermicelli. Great dish - I love it.

          aburitoro - If you can't find bun cha hanoi, try this. I understand that bun cha hanoi is normally served with a salty broth. This is a bit different, but the beef roll is probably very similar. The anchovy sauce is out of this world. It reminds me of bagna cauda.

          BTW - this restaurant does a great pho and seven ways beef ("bo 7 mon") . Since they are close to my home, this has become my family's "go to" place. Super friendly service. This is their second location - the original one is due south by a few blocks on Nanaimo.

          Pics http://picasaweb.google.com/gustibus....

          -----
          Song Huong
          2408 Nanaimo St, Vancouver, BC V5N, CA

          Song Huong Vietnamese
          1613 Nanaimo St, Vancouver, BC V5L4T9, CA

           
           
           
          1. re: fmed

            Thanks! Noted for a future visit.

            1. re: aburitoro

              I went to Song Huong (nr 1st) the other day and before I had a chance to order, the waitress recommended the bun bo ba mon to me as well. Despite being in a pork mood, I went with her suggestion and was very pleased with the dish, especially with the sauce.

              But it still doesn't satisfy my craving for bun cha hanoi. The beef roll is similar to bun cha hanoi in that it also uses ground meat for the pork patties. But bun cha hanoi also often has whole slices of grilled pork, and it has far more veggies, both in variety and quantity. Also, bun cha hanoi broth is like fish sauce, but a bit sweeter, and is used for dipping the noodles into (like zaru soba).

              I've noted your other suggestions for northern Vietnamese. I'll try to get around to trying one of them next week.

              1. re: aburitoro

                I'm still on the lookout as I would like to try this dish. I think you might be able to simulate it by cobbling a few dishes together - perhaps some grilled pork, salad, with nuoc mam?

                I'm glad you like the bun ba mon. Song Huong (the 1st and Nanaimo location) seems to have a good grill in the kitchen - all their grilled dishes come out nicely charred and flavourful.

                1. re: fmed

                  aburitoro -
                  I found Bun Cha Hanoi at Trang Tien on Fraser. But I must say it isn't exemplary.

                  Pics here http://picasaweb.google.com/gustibus....

                   
          2. re: fmed

            Pho Quyen - 3/4 - Very good bun. They don't have Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, so I ordered the the closest thing - which is essentially the same thing plus deep fried pork ball. Ironically, the pork ball detracted from the dish as I found its flavour bland and the texture gummy.

            It had a decent vermicelli to greens ratio. The vermicelli tasted fresh and was served at good temperature. The perfectly adequate spring roll is vege and uses Chinese spring roll wrapper. It could have cooked a bit longer as the skin was a bit pale to me.

            Pho Quyen is on my regular pho rotation - solid pho as well, if you are looking for pho.

            Pics: http://picasaweb.google.com/gustibus....

            -----
            Pho Quyen Restaurant Ltd
            3916 Fraser St, Vancouver, BC V5V4E4, CA

             
            1. re: fmed

              Thank you so much for posting this fmed! I have been in search of good bun since I moved here. Went to Cuu Long on the weekend and it was excellent! Super friendly and the lady was beaming when I told her it was the best bun I've had in the city.
              Bit disappointed in Au Petit's bun, noodles were hot (I like it room temp) and I wasnt a fan of the skin on the chicken. But I will always go back for their amazing subs!

              1. re: alwaysroom4dessert

                Blech on the hot noodles at Au Petit. I've had it there only once - the noodles were fine then. Most people (as you already know) go there for banh mi anyway. Bon further south, serves a decent bun IIRC. It's been a whle.

            2. I like the veggies UNDER the noodles- that's how I first had it and is still how I prefer it- also for me the main turn-off is piping hot noodle. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, ick. Hot rice vermicelli goes mushy and falls apart with very little encouragement!

              Great post, fmed!

              1 Reply
              1. re: John Manzo

                Thanks John.

                Yes most of the time the veggies are under the noodle. I like a bit of colour on top - so I like the more colourful ones (carrot/daikon pickle, herds, etc) on top for presentation.

              2. Yes, great post. I'm a great fan of Bun. We've been known to spend a day or two in Vancouver so while I'm looking up the addresses of the top 3 for my own records let me add them here:

                Co Do 950 Kingsway

                Cuu Long 3911 Knight Street (at Kingsway)

                Pho Thai Hoa 1625 Kingsway

                6 Replies
                1. re: sharonanne

                  Thanks sharonanne - I posted this during a time of insomnia. I was too tired to add the links (after the Chowhound boards flaked on me a few time, I just gave up.)

                  BTW - I think I may have stumbled on to something with Co Do. There are some interesting menu items that are not usually seen in Vietnamese restos around town. I will go there again to sample outside the bun/pho box.

                  1. re: sharonanne

                    Yes, this is great stuff -- I often find that if a Viet resto does great pho it's not stellar on the bun and vice versa, so we usually don't "mix" :-). I will have to give Pho Thai Hoa another try -- we went last Sept and it was so bad all around -- bad service, huge wait, no meal for me till SO was nearly done, greasy noodles, nasty meat and relatively expensive -- that we've not been back given the number of options available. To be fair, the salad roll was tasty (when it finally came). Psyched to try Co Do and Cuu Long...

                    1. re: grayelf

                      Pho Thai Hoa gets great reviews for their Pho...but I find their broth rather murky. Cuu Long is run by a very cool and friendly family (with a baby). It's in my regualr Pho rotation. Co Do is new to me....they had some interesting offerings like meat/shrimp pastes in banana leaf, etc that are not usual for your typical Pho resto.

                      1. re: fmed

                        Actually, fmed, I was talking about the bun at Pho Thai Hoa (should have been clearer). We went knowing that the pho was usually the star at least according to the comments I'd read, so maybe we got what we deserved, but the bun was really bad... sooo greasy I couldn't eat it, and that's saying a lot.

                        1. re: grayelf

                          I might to revise my rankings! It sounds like an issue with consistency.

                    2. re: sharonanne

                      Adding "place" links.

                      -----
                      Co Do
                      960 Kingsway, Vancouver, BC V5V3C4, CA

                      Pho Thai Hoa Restaurant
                      1625 Kingsway, Vancouver, BC V5N2S2, CA

                      Cuulong Restaurant
                      3911 Knight St, Vancouver, BC V5N3L8, CA

                    3. Thanks for that nice post. I haven't had much Vietnamese food up here in Vancouver (aside from a couple bowls of pho), since I have it so much back home and I figured I'll lay off of it for a while. But your post has got me salivating for some grilled pork!

                      Do you know of any places around here that specialize in northern Vietnamese dishes? Specifically, Hanoi-style bun cha?

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: aburitoro

                        You mean just the the spriing roll or pork mince by itself? Or do you mean the kind that is wrapped in leaf/roll then grilled? I see bun cha on the menus here and there...I haven't paid attention to which restos have it. I'll make a mental note. I'll get back to you.

                        You might want to try Lam Hoa Quan (Victoria Dr) or Hanoi Pho (Hastings) which have North Vietnamese cooks.

                          1. re: fmed

                            Bingo! That's the stuff :-)

                            I tried it for my first time a couple years ago from a street vendor in Hanoi and fell in love with it immediately. What I really love about this dish is the quantity and variety of veggies that it's served with.

                            After returning home to San Francisco from my vacation in SE Asia, I asked a woman in our office building -- an immigrant from Hanoi -- where I could find this dish. Apparently, not many places, since most Vietnamese in the Bay Area came from the south. But she pointed me to a handful of restaurants run by northern Vietnamese, and the ones I sampled are excellent .

                            I even found a thread on this in the SF Chow board:
                            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/312056

                            Thanks for you suggestions. I'll try to make a point of trying one of them within the next week.

                            1. re: aburitoro

                              I went to Hanoi Pho on East Hastings a few days ago, and they unfortunately do not serve bun cha hanoi. I decided to stay anyways since I still had a craving for grilled swine. I had the Bun Thap Cam (basically the same as Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio -- vermicelli w/ grilled charbroiled pork and spring rolls -- with the addition of pork ball).

                              The food was good and satisfying. Nothing outstanding imo, but nothing bad either. I would definitely go back if I were in the neighborhood in need of a Bun fixing.

                              I was there at 3pm for a late lunch, and I was the only customer in there. The woman who worked there (owner, I'm guessing) asked me if I lived in the neighborhood (I don't), and continued explaining to me that everything they serve there is fresh and made to order. She also continued that they also have very good pho, and they also serve won ton soup and chow mein (usually a turn-off for me when a restaurant tries to be too many things). She was very enthusiastic, and I got the impression that they are hurting for business. Then again, I have no idea what their lunch or dinner crowds are like, since I was there during the slowest part of the day.

                              Their menu lists 151 items, which is probably overkill. But what do I know... maybe that's what their customer base really wants?

                              1. re: aburitoro

                                I'm starting to think that bun cha hanoi is just available here. You may have to cook it yourself!

                      2. OK, not a lot of time to satisfy noodle needs - sorry to be unadventurous - but is there somewhere west of Main (or Main itself) with at least acceptable bun? Au Bon Cafe?

                        Help. I love this dish.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: waver

                          Bon Cafe has decent bun and so does Au Petit Cafe.

                          1. re: fmed

                            Thanks. And indeed I always get those names mixed up.