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Popular Vietnamese dish wins presidential approval

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL/CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Anh Hong restaurant’s bun cha Hanoi costs $12.

  • CNN

    President Barack Obama, left, and Anthony Bourdain enjoyed a meal of bun cha in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Bourdain’s CNNshow “Parts Unknown,” which aired Sunday.

Bun cha, a $6 meal for two in Vietnam (including two Hanoi beers), is the dish made famous by CNN host Anthony Bourdain — not to mention President Barack Obama.

It’s what the duo ate during Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May, in a dinner taped for Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” CNN show that aired Sunday.

“Bun” means noodles and “cha” is sausage or grilled, chopped meat. The dish is often called bun cha Hanoi because it is beloved in the capital city and is said to have been invented there.

You don’t have to travel to Vietnam to get a taste, but the dish is not easy to find in Honolulu, where most Vietnamese restaurants serve southern dishes and few diners venture beyond the familiar pho. The closest southern dish would be bun thit nuong — similar but with different seasonings, including lemongrass.

Joanne Nguyen, matriarch of Anh Hong restaurant in Chinatown, makes bun cha on request, but it’s not on the menu. “It’s not common,” she said. “It’s a northern dish.”

Fatty, grilled pork and pork patties are served in a sauce of fish sauce, vinegar and sugar, alongside pickled papaya, carrots and daikon, cold rice noodles and a plate of fresh vegetables and herbs.

If you’re sharing, you place some noodles and other elements in a small bowl with sauce, mix well and eat. If you’re eating alone, you can dip directly into the sauce.

The combination of fatty pork with the sweet, salty, sour and herb flavors, and the acidity of the pickles makes a delicious bite. Add sliced chilies for heat if you like.

The varying textures — soft noodles, crunchy pickles and chewy meat — add to the experience.

“This is killer,” Obama said in the “Parts Unknown” episode. “Outstanding. It’s really good.”

Bourdain called bun cha “about as typical and uniquely a Hanoi dish as there is.”

Restaurants like Bun Cha Huong Lien in Hanoi, where Bourdain and Obama ate, specialize in just one item, so they have perfected the dish.

Versions made in Honolulu are different, as the herbs vary and the sausage patties, called nem nuong, are not always available. Also, in Hanoi the meat and sausage would be grilled over charcoal rather than cooked on a stove.

But the basic dish here is still pretty good.

Find it at Anh Hong (174 N. King St.), Pho One (1617 Kapiolani Blvd.) and Pho 97 (1120 Maunakea St.). The Pig and the Lady (83 N. King St.) occasionally offers it as a special.

The sauce, sausage patties and mix of herbs differ at each restaurant.

Try them all.

As Bourdain said before Obama took his first bite: “Dip and stir and get ready for awesomeness.”

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