The “Bún chả Hương Liên” is a prominent family run restaurant, situated in in the south east of Hanoi’s French Quarter. The place is now commonly referred to as “Bun Cha Obama”, as it was where Barrack Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate their $6 dollar dinner.
During a visit to Hanoi in 2016, the US President sat down with the former CNN celebrity chef filming his travel food show – “Parts Unknown”. Since the historical moment, the restaurant’s changed forever. It’s been crowded with curious diners from all over the world.
The 4-story, easy-to-miss and like-a-house restaurant, has no big “Obama ate here!” sign or a giant poster of him on its facade. It’s not even in some snazzy or rich part of town. In fact, the place is at a tight street, quite relatively hard to find for many. Nothing makes the restaurant stand out, except for the fact that it’s really busy.
Our clients on Hanoi walking food tour recently asked us to take them to “Bun Cha Obama”. Knew it was a very busy place, we arrived between lunch and dinner so we wouldn’t need to wait. On arrival, there was no welcome, just directed to go upstairs.
We headed up a narrow tiled staircase to the second floor, and took a table adjacent to where Obama and Bourdain sat. Although there was no wait, all the staffs were so rushed to get people in and out quickly that it didn’t feel like a pleasant meal we were looking for.
The eatery looks much as it did when they were there, but there were a few key changes. The owner’s made the most of her opportunity. It was packed with tourists dining among canteen-style stainless steel tables and plastic stools, the stools that are ubiquitous around the city.
There were photos of ‘the moment’ everywhere – on the walls and the menu. Our clients, wishing to relive the experience, ordered a “Combo Obama”, which included bun cha, a crab spring roll and a bottle of Hanoi beer. The total cost was 85.000 dong (about $3.50).
I ordered the traditional bun cha for myself. The beloved local specialty of Hanoi included bits of marinated, charcoal-grilled fatty pork patties and pork slices in an unctuous dipping sauce with rice noodles and accompanying herb garnishes. The cost was 40.000 dong (less than 2 dollars).
But what we couldn’t do is to sit down at the same table, in those same blue plastic stools. As the restaurant encased the table at which the two men sat in protective glass, probably to preserve its claim to fame.
A set of plates, spoons, chopsticks, two empty beer bottles and staged dinnerware were organized as they were on the table where they ate together. Of course, the iconic low plastic stools were also included, as if waiting for the return of its distinguished diners.
Very quickly after placing our order, there laid our plates of cold rice noodles, leafy greens and herbs. The combo got individual plates of crisp spring rolls scissored into bite size chunks. Then everyone of us got a bowl of sweet and sour dipping sauce containing the tempting black-edged pork belly and minced pork patties.
The sauce was highlighted with pickled carrot and korhrabi, that helped cut through the fattiness of the meat. But, to any local standard, while the crab spring rolls didn’t deliver a lot of thrills, the dipping sauce was cold and overly sweet. Thankfully, we were able to adjust the taste with a kumquat and a tea spoon of rice vinegar.
For a reason, there’re always a little plate of smacked up garlic, sliced chilli, small jars of fish sauce, rice vinegar, and some kumquats set available on each table at every local restaurant in Hanoi. Dinners are supposed to affix those condements into whatever they are eating, to tailor the palate.
The service, on the other hand, did not accompany the fame of the place. We could hardly get a smile out of the waiters; they were no friendly. Many customers, like our own, were really banking on the reputation that Obama ate there and just want to try.
The place was good a long time ago, but it’s definitely not the must-try one. It’s now lacking in any charm, charisma and service it once had. It’s been taken over by tourism and clearly forgotten its routes, that’s a pity.
We are actually not surprised. When things become internet famous then tend to fall in quality quickly. Once the volume of customers is flowing no matter what, it’s a common mistake to forget about quality.
With that said, Flavors of Hanoi rated Bun Cha Huong Lien 3 out of 5. Hope they clean up their act, concentrate less on customer turnover and more on service and quality. They should know there are so many bun cha restaurants in the Old Quarter, selling the same thing with much better customer service.
- Bún Chả Hương Liên
- 24 Le Van Huu, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi
- 024 3943 4106
- 8h00 – 20h30
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