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Hẻm Gems: Just a Short Walk From Bến Thành, a Hearty Bún Chả for Lunch

In his essay collection Hà Nội 36 Phố Phường (The 36 Streets of Hanoi), Thạch Lam famously writes "Ngàn năm bửu vật đất Thăng Long / Bún chả là đây có phải không?" The couplet compares bún chả to a thousand-year-old delicacy that only Hanoi has.

Bún chả has its origin in the bustling, narrow alleys of the capital of Vietnam. Traditionally, it consists of pork patties and fatty slices of pork belly grilled over charcoal, eaten together with bún and nước chấm. To eat bún chả the most "authentic" way, sometimes, is to sit on the edge of the pavement while inhaling the smoke that seeps into your clothes afterwards.

The nondescript front of Tiệm Ăn Cát Tường.

One always questions the authenticity of food served outside of its place of origin. If it's not true to its original form, whatever that may be, is it any good? Is it worth the cost? Those questions were on my mind when I first set foot inside the almost spotless, modern-looking Tiệm Ăn Cát Tường in District 1 of Saigon.

Located right in the city center, next to Bến Thành Market, the restaurant is designed to attract tourists. Metal tables are arranged in neat rows behind the cooking station that's always bubbling away with various broths and chopped meats. During the lunch rush, the crowd is often half locals and half foreigners, especially Japanese, as the manager told me.

Phở gà is another mainstay at the eatery.

When I raised the question of authenticity to the restaurant manager, he explained to me that every place in Hanoi has different recipes and techniques, so there isn't one strict standard for bún chả, though he insisted that it is definitely not bún thịt nướng. Flavor-wise, it has everything that a delicious bún chả promises to deliver. Juicy balls of pork patties burst with the umami flavor of fish sauce and garlic. Smoky slices of pork belly are submerged in a light, vinegary nước chấm.

There isn't one strict standard for bún chả, but it is definitely not bún thịt nướng.

Whereas everything is mixed together with fish sauce in bún thịt nướng, you are supposed to dip your bún in the sauce and then chase it with meat and vegetables for bún chả. Refreshing slices of papaya, carrots, and a huge plate of raw leaves such as perilla and diếp cá ensure that the meal is never one-dimensional or lacks texture.

When I asked the owner the correct way to eat bún chả, he told me that it is up to the individual customer. One can dip their bún if they like, he said, or wrap everything together inside fresh veggies and eat with nước chấm. For me, I prefer to just lightly soak my bún with sauce and then eat everything with meat and crunchy herbs.

A portion of bún chả comes with bún, grilled pork patties, fresh vegetables, and nước chấm.

Now, if you are familiar with northern Vietnamese food, you might argue: bún chả is supposed to be grilled with charcoal on the open street and pierced by bamboo skewers instead of metal ones, and no one eats it for dinner, etc. Should we trust the manager when he insisted that this is the best place to have bún chả in town and that the dish is made as authentically as possible to serve northerners who move to Saigon?

Charred patties to be eaten with bún.

Living far away from home, cooks are always faced with the challenge to balance nostalgia and the need for adaptation to appeal to a wider range of customers. Like anyone foreign or regional dish that pops up in Saigon, bún chả must also receive modifications while still preserving a semblance of its original flavors.

Miến gà (left) and phở tái (right).

After all, the noodle dish was born into a period of historic societal changes. After Đổi Mới, there was a boom of street food vendors as entrepreneurial working-class Vietnamese took to the streets. Serving food was a quick, cost-effective way to earn money. In Hanoi, while street food has been embedded in the culture for much longer, it really only began to gain popularity during the 1980s.

Nem (left) and chả (right) are two protein options for bún chả.

Bringing bún chả into a different context in the south is bound to inspire culinary changes. Instead of street carts, there is a tradition of small-scale, family-run restaurants in Saigon selling just as delicious food for decades and passing the business down to their own children. Tiệm Ăn Cát Tường is one example, having existed for more than 30 years.

Tiệm Ăn Cát Tường was once featured on a Japanese travel magazine, and Cát Tường's owner was extremely proud. He shows us what the magazine says of his restaurant via phone screenshot.

As the manager told me, while he loved Hanoi, his birthplace, he preferred his adopted home more. His passion for food took him to the biggest city in Vietnam. There, he found a place that suits his personality and aspirations.

It is true that cultural and geographical differences existed between northern and southern Vietnam. However, there are just as many similarities. The love for good food is a commonality that we all share. Without it, I might never be able to find such a delicious bún chả right in the middle of Saigon.

Tiệm Ăn Cát Tường is open from 7am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5
Price: 3.5/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 3.5/5
Location: 4.5/5

Quỳnh is a Gen-Z writer who loves food and animals. Being an introvert, she likes to express her sass through writing instead.

Tiệm Ăn Cát Tường

69 Thủ Khoa Huân, Bến Thành Ward, D1

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