I am not a Vietnamese food expert. I am, however, one hell of an enthusiast. It’s barely been two years since my trip to Vietnam, and while many details are still fresh in my mind, I still can’t quite recall one of the most important ones.
How did I find that fantastic dish? I remember that the street was somewhere outside the famous Hanoi Old Quarter, that there were ubiquitous yellow government buildings to the right of me, street vendors to the left. I made my way to a sidewalk table for lunch. What I ended up with was something unexpected, and I haven’t been able to get it off my mind since.
I’m pretty sure I saw a sign that read “Bún chả,” the northern Vietnamese dish more recently made familiar in the States by President Obama’s appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s Part’s Unknown. (RIP, Tony.) But it actually read “Bún cá,” a dish of which I was completely ignorant.
What arrived was…a soup. I was a few weeks into my trip and was certainly no stranger to the array of Vietnamese soups. But this wasn’t what I thought I ordered. The smell and vivid green of the dill monopolized my senses. Even for someone who grew up in a family of Germanic roots, the sheer volume of dill was astounding. It was as if dill was a salad green used as a vegetable rather than an herb. Overpowering and effective. The fish was fried, very lightly breaded, but strong with turmeric. Finally, thanklessly propping up everything else was an astoundingly clean fish stock with bun noodles.
After months of searching, I recently found a close approximation. On the recommendation of Chicago culinary personality—and my personal Vietnamese cuisine sage—Jo Pham. Jo is an underground chef around Chicago, not to mention an occasional thorn in the city's side, working at some of the top restaurants in Chicago and living this cuisine since birth. The knowledge Jo's generously provided to me over the years is invaluable, including pointing me toward Pho 777.
Pho 777 is located in the Vietnamese neighborhood of Chicago off the Argyle Red Line stop, and specializes in Northern Vietnamese cuisine. Armed with excitement, but braced for disappointment, I made my way there to see if I could find a replica of this dish in my home city.
Pho 777’s version was good, but with a tomato stock, and vegetables, it wasn’t the soup that still dominated my memories. Recognizing my obsession could not be quelled, I set out to make my own.
After hours of frustrating internet research, most of the results either pointed to a similar non-soup version called Chả Cá Lã Vọng, or a version closer to Pho 777’s, complete with the tomato stock and additional vegetables. It was maddening enough that I was starting to question whether I’d made up the dish in a vacation fever dream.
There was only one other option. Guided by my memory and a whole lot of research, I got to work. With time, bit by bit, the dish became more realistic. Between the recipes I found online, and general knowledge amassed over the years by reading Andrea Nguyen’s fantastic cookbooks and website, I was starting to find a direction. As the methods, techniques, and a recipe started to formulate in my head, I had to ask myself a tough question:
“Do you really want to make a lame ass version of this dish?” It was clear I needed more help.
“There’s no tamari. Don’t ever put tamari in a Vietnamese soup.” A few minutes into an Instagram Messenger conversation and Jo was quickly providing the guidance I desperately needed. An hour or so later, and I was starting to become confident I wasn’t going to shit the proverbial bed.
But I wanted to add another variable to the mix—chili oil. While in Da Nang, enjoying Hoi An Chicken and Rice, I became smitten with a chili oil with a smoky, sweet flavor similar to Ancho. Knowing that an essential element of Vietnamese cuisine is providing a complex canvas for the diners to customize to their personal palate with an array of condiments, chili oil was now on the menu. It was all coming together.
My go-to beer for any meal is a well-made Pilsner. And if you live in Chicago, like me, and you want a dynamite Pils, you go to Metropolitan Brewing. That was my plan. But once I sat down at their taproom, growler in hand, it was the seasonal release, a beer inspired by their classic Hefeweizen, that caught my eye.
This exquisite beer is perfectly recognizable as German-influenced, but also slyly tropical. The clove and banana, common elements of Vietnamese cuisine, are fundamental elements of Metro’s Wheat Ale. Conversely, the Vietnamese-inspired soup I was serving relied heavily on onion and dill, which happen to be prime components of German cuisine. Together, the soup and the beer are a perfect match.
Beer in hand, I made one final, last-second adjustment to the recipe in my head, choosing to grill the fish instead of fry it. With charcoal smoke wafting through every city I visited on my Vietnamese trip as street food was prepared, the smell and life of the grill was something I wanted to impart to this soup.
My favorite memories of eating Vietnamese food were outside on the streets of Vietnam, surrounded by the sounds of the city and its people. Now, given the choice, I chose to surround myself with friends and the sounds of my city as I shared this memory with them.
For the chili oil
3 oz. of ancho chilis
1 tbsp of red pepper flakes
For the Bún cá
2 lbs of tilapia
2 tbsp of turmeric
1 tbsp of rice flour
1 cup + 1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp yogurt
4 tbsp of fish sauce
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp (plus pinches) salt
1 tbsp MSG
1 pc rock candy
5 oz. dried squid
3 cups of dill
6 charred scallions
6 charred garlic cloves
1 package rice vermicelli noodles
1. Heat your oven to 400. Place scallions in an oiled tray, far enough from each other so they don’t touch. Season with a pinch of salt before roasting. Time in the oven should be 20-30 minutes, or until they smell/look done. Scallions should be charred, so a very dark brown—almost black—color is desirable.
2. Place a small skillet or saucepan over medium heat with a cup of oil. Oil should be able to cover at least a half clove of garlic. Once the oil is hot, add peeled garlic cloves. Turn the cloves while they cook, and evenly char. Similar to the scallions, the garlic should be almost black. Charring garlic and scallions caramelizes sugars while also imparting a slight bitterness and smokiness to the soup stock.
3. Add turmeric, yogurt, vegetable oil, two tablespoons fish sauce, one tablespoon soy sauce, and a pinch of salt in a non-reactive bowl or plastic bag. Mix well. Add fish and mix again, thoroughly. Make sure each piece of fish is sufficiently slathered with marinade. Fish should marinate somewhere between four hours and overnight.
4. For the chili oil, make sure the chilis are completely dry by adding them to an oven set to 200 degrees. Split open the chilis and lie them flat. Don’t worry about seeding or losing seeds. Once the chili flesh is dry enough that it cracks—rather than rips—apart (about 20 minutes), add to mortar and pestle, or food processor. Pulse/pound until whole chilis are now flakes. Add ancho chili flakes and seeds, as well as red pepper flakes and seeds to a mason jar.
5. Heat one cup of oil to 400 degrees in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and wait for the heat to lower to 325-350. Carefully pour hot oil onto the chili flake mixture. Cover flakes by approximately half an inch. Let the chili oil sit until room temperature, then cover. Chili oil should be made at least a day ahead of time.
6. Add squid, six stalks of fresh scallions, six charred scallions, six charred garlic cloves, one piece of rock candy (these are available in Asian markets, substitute with a half a tablespoon of sugar if need be), one tablespoon salt, one tablespoon MSG, two tablespoons soy sauce, two tablespoons of fish sauce, and juice of one lime to a pot. Cover with 4.5-5 quarts of water. Bring to boil, then set to a simmer. Simmer for at least four hours. Before serving, season to taste with soy sauce, salt, and fish sauce.
7. The rice vermicelli (bun) can be cooked ahead of time and stored in the fridge. When stored, the noodles will stick. However, they can be easily loosened by running under warm water.
8. When the stock is done, add fish to the grill. Don’t worry about rinsing or cleaning marinade from the fish. The fish will cook fast, so you should cover and cook over indirect heat. If you decide to fry the fish, the marinade will work as a batter. Let the fish rest for five minutes, then chop roughly before serving.
9. While the fish is resting, assemble the bowls. Add noodles to the bowl as well as roughly a half of a cup of chopped dill and about a third of a cup of scallions. Cover noodles, dill, and scallion with hot fish stock. Finally, add fish, and serve with limes, chili oil, fish sauce, and soy sauce for diners to add as they see fit.