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Hẻm Gems: In Đà Nẵng, Dì Gái's Bún Chả Cá Is a Family Heirloom

Sometimes, for descendants of Central Vietnam, a bowl of steaming bún chả cá can even sooth the pain and misery of a storm-battered rainy season.

My parents often took me to a bún place before school. To them, nothing could fill their child’s stomach as ideally as a bowl of bún chả cá with a broth that sings of Đà Nẵng essence, a symphony performed by many different local produce like cabbage, tomato and squash, making it an appetizing orange color.

Having grown up in a land of many cultural influences, a blend of Huế and Quảng culinary styles, I was lucky enough to sample numerous delicacies. To me, bún chả cá is still the most elegant dish in central Vietnam cuisine. While most recipes coming out of the region err on the side of saltiness and intense savoriness, this magical noodle soup brings a sweet, neutral aftertaste thanks to ingredients from both the land and the sea.

As far as bún cá goes, I have tried countless stalls, but Dì Gái’s version remains on my trusty checklist whenever a friend makes a visit and wishes to try a true-blue bún Đà Nẵng. The stall’s rustic shop front doesn’t stand out much amongst the sea of famous eateries on Lê Đình Dương Street; even I have to carefully check the addresses every visit so I don’t drive past it.

The staff prepares each portion right in front where one can watch every step. The toppings are stored in a glass display, right next to a giant vat of broth that’s always bubbling and emitting swirls of enticing fragrances.

A standard bún chả cá is assembled from rice noodles, chả cá, crab patties, broth, fresh herbs, and pork skin — nearly everything is either homemade or consciously selected by the owner, chị Phượng. The first element in its making is the broth, which requires cooking down fish bones from the previous night. She also rolls her own noodles to achieve a good texture.

Every day, Phượng wakes up at 3–4am to head to the wholesale market for the freshest fish to make her Lý Sơn-style red fish chả. The chunks of fish flesh is pulverized at a local shop — the texture of this mixture is a crucial factor in deciding the chả’s quality. In every batch of fish, she only picks the choice cut to make the paste (she politely refused to divulge which cut because of “trade secrets”).

Then the fish paste is put in molds and cooked by frying or steaming. The accouterments are also very Đà Nẵng: smashed chilies, shallots, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, banana blossoms, and whole-leaf herbs — unlike Saigon’s usage of julienned herbs.

“My mother began selling bún here before 1975. Her entire wealth was a bún kiosk on the pavement. Her regulars affectionately called her ‘dì Gái.’ After she passed it down to me, I fixed the shop up, and used her moniker to name it,” she reminisces while nimbly pouring broth into a row of bún bowls.

This backstory encapsulates what I adore about the place: it’s a family business, but they are not ostentatious about it. There’s no bombastic marketing campaign or banners boasting “selling since this or that year.” The throngs of patrons in and out of Bún Chả Cá Dì Gái are all lured here thanks to word of mouth, from parents taking their children for breakfast, from colleagues recommending new spots to try for lunch. On average, the place dishes out from 500 to 600 bowls a day, proof that a simple noodle spot can be “hot” without advertising.

Eating here, I often pick up very distinctive local dialects, like “Lấy tui một tô bún chả cá hỉ” or “Hết bao nhiêu rứa chị?” mixed with regional accents of tourists from other localities. I have never asked them what they think of my hometown’s bún chả cá, but thankfully, if Google reviews are to be believed, almost everyone praises its balanced flavors, even though I know that each region in Vietnam does lean a certain way when it comes to overall taste.

What about the palate of Đà Nẵng and Central Vietnam dwellers? Savory and salty, for sure. We love including mắm in our meals. Accompanying a bowl of bún chả cá is mắm ruốc. One can opt to mix it in with the broth or with smashed chilies as a side dipping for chả.

I always order a big portion, even though the difference between the sizes is just VND5,000. Perhaps I am one of those picky eaters to whom a small bowl is not enough, but a “đặc biệt” bowl will leave me bursting at the seams. In any case, with just VND30,000, I can relish a bodacious bowl of bún filled to the brim with toppings like crispy pork fat and fresh herbs. Where else can you find a delicious dish at an affordable price in the age of inflation like today?

“My mom left me this bún place, and right from the name, it shows a sense of passing down the baton. Because it bears her name, I don’t dare to be careless in my food. She taught me that if you want to sell food, you must cook it as if for your parents, for your family. I always try to embody that spirit,” Phượng tells me.

Perhaps thanks to that dedication, Dì Gái’s vat of broth always empties at a dizzying rate. Even though the closing time is officially at noon, there have been times when I have to find a different option at 9–10am because everything is already sold out, especially during weekends or peak tourism seasons.

After every typhoon season in Central Vietnam, a hot bowl of bún chả cá not only satiates the foodie in us. It also encompasses the faith that fishermen will continue to head to the sea, that their nets will be full of seafood, and that we will, as always, weather any disaster together despite losses and tragedies.

Bún chả cá Dì Gái is open from 6am to 12pm.

To sum up:

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

Bún chả cá Dì Gái

119 Lê Đình Dương, Nam Dương Ward, Hải Châu District, Đà Nẵng 

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