The New Vietnam (Food) War: Bun Cha Ra Boom
There’s almost always a line of people under the bright-yellow sign outside Bun Cha Ra Boom in Hannam-dong, waiting patiently in the cordoned-off area to get in.
Demand for the northern Vietnamese cuisine has been high since the franchise entered the market this summer with its first location. Its fourth branch, in Gwanghwamun, is the latest.
The restaurant’s claim to fame is its bun cha (12,000 KRW), Hanoi’s second most favored dish after pho. The bun cha, or charcoal-grilled roasted beef, meatballs and white homemade vermicelli, is served in two separate dishes with fresh lime, mint, cilantro, bird’s eye chili, pickled garlic, and herbs in smaller containers on the side. The meat is grilled with charcoal from the Vietnamese coffee tree. Barbecuing the beef sets Bu Cha Ra Boom apart from its competitors as you can taste the smokiness. Bun Cha Ra Boom is generous with its portions of meat but on one occasion, it tasted slightly overdone and the charcoal taste was overpowering. Overall, the bun cha is a flavorful dish, but has no hint of fish sauce, an ingredient commonly used as a flavoring. The dunking sauce has just the right amount of sweet and sour, which makes up for the absence of fish sauce.
The menu, which is printed in Korean and English, also includes three types of pho. A standard bowl (9,000 KRW) includes a beef broth that has been boiled for 24 hours while meat and seafood sauce are additions to the premium Hanoi Pho Cao Cap (12,500 KRW). The Pho Cay, a pork and chicken broth soup that’s a bit spicy (9,500 KRW), has recently been added to the Korean-language menu per customers’ requests. All of the pho comes with a healthy dose of bean sprouts. A chef’s tip on the menu smartly suggests that lime be drizzled on both noodle dishes. They come with a few slices on the side but any extra will cost 1,000 KRW.
The nem dumplings are stuffed with chopped pork, shrimp, and mushrooms and are neatly wrapped in rice papers before being deep fried. Light, crispy and not the least bit oily, they make a perfect appetizer for only 6,000 KRW. For a side dish that’s a bit healthier, choose rau muong, or water spinach (7,000 KRW) which is stir-fried in just enough garlic. Take a friend and order everything on the small menu as a set for 37,000 KRW.
Three beers (333, Tiger and Saigon) and NepMoi, an imported vodka billed as “Vietnamese soju” are among the drink offerings. The standout is the traditional Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. You won’t find it on the menu and that’s intentional. Given its heated market and long lines, the restaurant wants to ensure it’s seen as a hotspot for noodles, not a café to linger. Order the coffee on the way out.
Rice noodles are the star of the show here, said Kim Bum Seok, an assistant manager with parent company SF Innovation, and customers are eating them up. Market saturation isn’t a concern, he says, as SF Innovation, owners of School Food and April Market, are veterans in food innovation. The southern Vietnamese food chains like Pho Mein and Little Saigon have had staying power. Northern cuisine can too, he said.
Valet parking avaiable