Ever since President Barack Obama ate bun cha in Vietnam last spring with Anthony Bourdain for CNN's Parts Unknown, I've been on the hunt locally for this signature dish from Hanoi.
But this Northern Vietnamese specialty -- a cold vermicelli bowl topped with herbs, warm grilled pork patties, and thin slices of marinated pork (along with a sweet and funky dipping sauce) -- has been something of a rarity in Philly's more southern-inflected Vietnamese restaurants.
For the best versions, head to either Kensington's Thang Long, or Cafe Saigon on Adams Avenue in Northeast Philly.
But Center City-zens can now taste a solid rendition at Banh Mi & Bottles, the hybrid of craft beer bottleshop (with 370 great brews in the fridge) fused onto an ambitious cocktail bar and a traditional Vietnamese kitchen from managing partner Taun Phung and his father, chef Hiew Phung, who cooked at Pho Ha.
According to manager Philip Search, up to 80 percent of this South Street restaurant's customers have never had Vietnamese food before, so there are plenty of Americanized touches on the menu (sadly, no tripe or tendon for the very tasty pho). But the bun cha -- simply dubbed here the "Obama vermicelli bowl" -- makes fewer concessions.
A small one is that the lettuce is mixed with mint into the noodles like salad, rather than served whole on the side as a wrap.
But the overall effect is still one of a fresh, herbaceous, and irresistibly tasty platter, with the added bonus of crispy imperial spring rolls, crunchy shallots, and a nuoc mam dip that has a layered sweetness behind its fish sauce funk. Whether political nostalgia is really driving the dish's sudden popularity is hard to say -- bun cha is a dish deserving of the praise.
But soon, you'll be able to get more Obama vermicelli variations at this South Street bottle shop, topped with skewers of beef and tofu, too.
-- Craig LaBan
Obama vermicelli bowl, $12, Banh Mi & Bottles, 712 South St., 215-800-1533; banhmiandbottles.com