Searching for the Elusive Vietnamese Noodle Dish Bún Kèn

Chef Tu David Phu’s family comes from Phú Quốc, home of bún kèn. (left). Soapbox Café’s bún kèn will be available as a popup special (right). (Toan Nguyen of Florian photography, left; Soapbox cafe, right)

Bún kèn is  one of the most treasured Vietnamese noodle dishes. The aromatic assemblage of rice noodles topped with an amber-colored, heavily spiced, coconut fish curry, garnished with fresh herbs like bean sprouts, mint and cucumber, is not easy to find in Bay Area Vietnamese restaurants. Even if you travelled to Vietnam, you might miss it—unless you knew the right street vendor on the island of Phú Quốc. Chef Tu David Phu, a Bay Area chef who also appeared on Bravo's Top Chef, whose family hails from Phú Quốc, reverently declares he could eat bowls and bowls of it. Fish and spices, the essential elements of the dish, he explains, have always played pivotal roles on this island in the Mekong Delta, southwest of Vietnam. Its position on the Silk Road, bestowed on its cuisine an abundance of ingredients from many lands, such as lemon grass from Africa, and turmeric, ginger, and coriander from South Asia. 

Spiced fish curry is the key to bún kèn from the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc.
Spiced fish curry is the key to bún kèn from the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc. (VietnamCoracle.com https://www.vietnamcoracle.com/island-broth-bun-ken/)

Although his mother cooked the dish when Phu was a child, he figures he hadn’t yet developed the palate to appreciate its assertive flavors. The first time he actually recalls tasting bún kèn was just a couple of years ago, at a gathering of local Phú Quốc islanders.  “It had somehow got pushed out of my memory,” he says. “But it tasted familiar and something in me woke up.” Because of its strong spice profile, Phu, who is also a San Francisco Chronicle Rising Star Chef, admits he mistakenly first pegged it as Indonesian. 

More Noodles.

Now that he is enamored with bún kèn, the chef tries to replicate it at home. “The key element,” he says, “is the texture of the fish in the curry sauce, which needs to be ‘bouncy.’” Phu achieves this by pounding the white fish (halibut is his choice) in a mortar for over an hour. It is important, he cautions, not to grind the fish as that would result in a very different texture.  “In southern Vietnamese cooking,” he says, “we love things that have a bounce. Even when we chop, or grind, we’re always trying to figure out how to get more chew into it.” The time-consuming dish, he says, involves “toasting and blooming tons of lemongrass, ginger, aromatics like turmeric and curry into the oil, thus infusing it with a dark turmeric color.  Like a soup or stew you have to stand and stir it gently, not let it burn or over reduce, and give it lots of attention.”

Although Phu cooked for years at fine New York restaurants and concedes that he is considered an excellent chef, he still feels his attempts to make bún kèn have not yet achieved the ideal he is striving for.  “As ‘accomplished’ as I am, I can’t cook as well as my Vietnamese aunt or my mom or my grandmother or a Phú Quốc street vendor,” he admits. “They have been doing it every day, for generations.”

Bún kèn at the Soapbox Café

Soapbox Cafe’s spices for the fish curry include: turmeric, lemon grass, makrut lime leaves, ginger, galanga, garlic and shallots.
Soapbox Cafe’s spices for the fish curry include: turmeric, lemon grass, makrut lime leaves, ginger, galanga, garlic and shallots. (The Soapbox Cafe)

 In his search for the perfect bún kèn, Phu discovered an unassuming Russian Hill café called Soapbox Café. When he tasted the dish made by Van Nguyen, the matriarch and cook of the family-owned restaurant who also hails from Phú Quốc, he knew he had found a master. “She nailed it!” says Phu. 

Sponsored

Nguyen, her husband and two young daughters came to the U.S. as refugees in 1984 after spending two years in a Thai refugee camp. She and her older daughter, Loan Ly, have been running the café since 2015, serving mostly breakfast and lunch dishes. To celebrate their re-opening after an earthquake retrofitting in 2019, Nguyen was inspired to serve bún kèn for the first time at Soapbox Café.

Van Nguyen and Tu David Phu share a love of bún kèn
Van Nguyen(left) and Tu David Phu share a love of bún kèn. (The Soapbox Cafe)

Although both Nguyen and Ly had previously traveled to Phú Quốc separately, their first trip to the island together was in 2017. As they visited relatives, they tasted the bún kèn at an aunt’s food stall and were smitten. (It was Ly’s first time eating it, because her mother explained, the labor-intensive dish is not usually made at home.) Although the women inquired, their aunt would only provide them with a general idea of its preparation. But the memory of its taste was enough for Nguyen, a skilled cook, to perfect the dish when she came home. She agrees with Phu: the secret to bún kèn is achieving the perfect texture for the fish curry, and that takes work. After cleaning, salting and boiling the fish, she pounds it with a stone mortar and pestle for two hours and then pounds it together with the spices. With her daughter interpreting over the phone, she described the desired texture as “fluffy like pork floss, or like a powder with a grainy, but bouncy texture.” The slender rice noodles at the base of the dish play an important counterbalance and require care to achieve a chewy, not mushy, texture.

Nguyen plans to start offering bún kèn as an occasional popup special at Soapbox Cafe. (Check their website or Instagram site for details.) And her daughter will be watching very closely as her mother cooks, so that one day, she can master this special dish and carry on the family tradition.


 Soapbox Cafe

https://www.thesoapboxcafe.com/ 

1800 Hyde Street, San Francisco

 415-814-3391

@thesoapboxcafe