If phở hadn’t become Vietnam’s most popular dish here in the States, the vermicelli noodle salad known as bún might have taken its place. At least, that’s what I like to think because I love them both and sometimes it’s hard to pick between the two. For me, the choice might come down to the weather. Served at room temperature, bún is a refreshing meal, ideal for summertime eating: cooked and cooled rice noodles are topped with fresh salad (shredded lettuce, cucumber, aromatic herbs and bean sprouts), chopped roasted peanuts, and usually some sort of meat or seafood (grilled pork in bún thịt nướng being the most popular), still warm from the grill or pan, and a small cup of nước chấm served on the side for dipping. I got into the habit long ago of pouring the sauce over the rice noodle salad like a dressing.
My wife and I had lunch at Monsoon East a few days ago. She wanted the ox-tail pho (phở bở) that I so enjoyed almost a month ago. Bún was also on the menu. My choice was the first on the short list, a grilled chicken noodle salad (bún gà nướng).
So, why does Monsoon’s bún rank at the head of my list? I’ll start with the salad toppings, certainly of excellent quality but easy enough for restaurants here in Seattle to get—romaine lettuce, thinly sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts and mint. Monsoon uncommonly garnishes with fried shallots, those crispy and flavorful allium tidbits so addictive in Southeast Asian cooking. The noodles, thicker and round in cross section rather than square (as in phở), were perfection, making me wonder if they were freshly made as is commonplace in Vietnam, rather than rehydrated from dried pasta. The generous portion of chicken breast had attractive grill marks, imparting a pleasant light smokiness that counterpointed the lemongrass marinade. The imperial roll (chả giò) gets its extraordinary savor from ground kurobuta pork (sourced from Carlton Farms), shrimp and fish sauce, and glutinous crispiness from the fried rice paper wrapping. The filling also revealed glass (mung bean) noodles and bits of chopped vegetables. These rolls were so good that my wife asked if they could be ordered separately. Indeed, they could. To top it all off, Monsoon’s nước chấm is bright and exceptionally savory. The salad weighs in at $11, not a bargain when compared to other restaurants’ prices, but the quality ingredients and kitchen mastery to produce a superior bún (☆☆☆☆) makes it worth an occasional indulgence.