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Hẻm Gem: Bún Cá Sứa With a Stock That Tastes Like the Ocean

A friend once told me that Saigon is a place that makes you feel like you can travel anywhere.

In a gastronomic sense, one can easily find a Japanese eatery, a Thai food franchise, an Indian restaurant, a central Vietnamese stall, and Hanoian places serving different bún dishes in a single district, each only a stone’s thrown away from each other. These places don’t necessarily transport its eaters to the place of their dishes' origins, yet the city's boundary-traversing food scene can lead you to believe the world is at your fingertips and on your palate and certain regions and nations can be consumed from a small bowl on your table.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, to find bún cá Nha Trang in a back alley of 86 Nguyen Du, a famous street food hẻm well-known for a súp cua cart that has existed for more than two decades. Since I'm used to seeing food places serving dishes that I’m not familiar with, whenever I go into the hẻm I ignored the bún cá restaurant the way one scrolls past a Facebook advertisement, until our Saigoneer Korean colleague recommended that we should go there for lunch.

Like many eateries in Saigon, the restaurant's "name" is a collage of things that they offer. Upon entering, it was clear to us that their star dishes are Nha Trang staples bún cá (fish noodle soup) and bún cá sứa (fish and jellyfish noodle soup). These dishes are commonplace in coastal cities such as Da Nang, Nha Trang, Quy Nhon and Phan Rang thanks to their proximity to the beaches, albeit with differences in cooking techniques and ingredients. Bún cá Nha Trang usually consists of chả cá (fish cakes), fresh fish, tomatoes and pineapples served with bún in a stock made from fish head and bones. Bún cá sứa is similar to bún cá but with jellyfish added.

The broth in Nguyen Du's bún cá sứa is light yet colorful and well-seasoned enough to carry the bún. While already flavorful on its own, I tried dumping a spoonful of shrimp paste on the side into the bowl to add an extra kick, which I later learned is some people's sworn-by bún cá etiquette. At first, the mắm tôm does its job of being a loud and in-your-face condiment, however, shortly after one or two broth sips, it mellows out and adds an even more pleasant layer to the broth. The jellyfish texture might be an acquired taste for some, but the eatery's variety of sweet fish sauce, chili oil, and mắm makes it shine. 

Each bowl is given a substantial chunk of fresh fish, which is firm and flaky. The second time I went to have bún cá, which was a bit later in the afternoon when the office crowd had returned to their work, I overheard the owner speak candidly about her choice of fish to a fellow eater who asked what kind of fish she used. The owner said that she uses a type that belongs to the same Scombridea family as tuna and mackerel, but is more tender and has more fat than those. According to her, the fish can only be found in Nha Trang and some central Vietnam cities.

One of the employee even expressed mild disdain when tuna was suggested by the customer as a possible substitute, insisting that its meat is less flavorful and would turn into a “piece of wood” when braised.

While the owner’s remark makes me appreciate the dish more, I failed to share her enthusiasm about the fresh fish (a Saigoneer colleague raves about it, however). My upbringing's proximity to Mekong Delta cuisine has taught my taste buds to prefer the texture of freshwater fish farmed in small rivers and lakes over ones caught from the sea. Hence, the spotlight of the dish for me is the chả cá, which retains the amazing flavor of saltwater fish while the texture is pounded into chewy, gummy bites. Two types of chả cá are offered in the dish: fried chả cá for a robust taste, while boiled chả cá offers a light, fresh counterbalance that absorbs the flavor of the stock. The interplay between textures makes the dish well-rounded and satisfying: chewy chả cá, crunchy jellyfish, firm fish cubes, tender slices of tomato and pineapple complement each other without being too jarring.

The place also offers bánh canh, which uses a different type of noodle but with similar ingredients except the jellyfish, the tomatoes and pineapple. Nem nướng is available as well, a Ninh Hoa specialty consisting of grilled pork patties and deep-fried rice papers that are assembled inside a rice paper roll with herbs and vegetables.

 

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5 — VND50,000 per portion.

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Friendliness: 4.5/5

Location: 5/5

Thi believes that happiness starts with sautéing garlic in hot oil.

Bún cá sứa

86 Nguyen Du, Ben Nghe Ward, D1

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