Bún mắm. Bò lá lốt. Bún nước lèo. Bánh khọt. Bột chiên.
Bún mắm in particular is everywhere. It's always listed at the very top of noodle restaurants' menus, breaking the bank compared to everything else at around 40000-50000 đồng ($2-$2.50).
I never tried it in Vietnam. It was too big a gamble! The translation of "bún mắm" is basically just "noodles with sauce" or, if you want to take an educated guess, "noodles with fish-paste-like sauce". I didn't know what that meant. Was I about to pay a whole $2.50 for a bowl of just sauce-drenched noodles?
It sounds completely ridiculous now, but you do get accustomed to foreign prices very quickly. You recalibrate your parameters of acceptability. I definitely sulked for a good few minutes once when my (equivalent of) $4 duck noodle soup in Bình Tân district turned out to be less than impressive because, gasp, the price point; gasp, the disappointment!
I didn't try bún mắm until I got back to Los Angeles, and I tried it at a wonderful place called Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel. In order to punish myself for being so stingy and unadventurous in Vietnam, I didn't even look at the English description. I ordered it blind. The only clue I got was from our waiter (and later, I discovered, the owner), talking to one of my companions about it while trying to convince her to get her hủ tiếu with deer instead of beef.
"Don't worry, deer soup you can eat no problem, even if you never had before, but the bún mắm, like she's getting, it takes... a little getting used to!" He turned to me. "You had it before, right?"
"Yep," I lied through my teeth. I didn't want him to make it any milder for my benefit, or tweak the ingredients to make them more American-friendly. I didn't really think he would do this, but I wanted there to be no chance. I wanted him to think I ate bún mắm all over the place, that I ate it in my sleep with my eyes closed.
He bought it.
I could smell it as it was being carried towards me, from behind my back way across the restaurant. It smelled like a sunny warehouse full of busily fermenting jars of anchovies. In a good way, if you can imagine it. Not rotten anchovies, not fish-market-at-closing-time, not even the nostril-assaulting funk of lutefisk - just anchovies fermented exactly the way they're supposed to be.
For the smell, the broth itself was surprisingly clear. It was the mound of ingredients that gave the bowl its colorful effect. A bright purple eggplant, thickly cut with a browned skin and oozing center, stuck out of the top like a birthday candle. Twists of soft fish floated airily past the rice noodles, while big old crispy pork belly slices - the kind that are higher than they are wide and let you see the whole cross section of flesh: crisp skin, the thin fat layer right beneath, then the tender meat closer to the bone - held court around the edges. Sprinkled over the top were skinny leek slices, giving the thing a festive air.
Sometimes tastes are less concentrated than smells. Jackfruit, for example, can stink up a whole city block, but in your mouth it's just a vague suggestion of foot-sweat, rather than a mouthful of it. It mostly tastes like not-quite ripe mango mixed with pineapple. Another example is yak butter tea. It smells straight-up like freshly deposited vomit, but if you breathe out while bringing it to your lips, it morphs into an only slightly funky chai.
The bún mắm broth was not one of these types of foods. It tasted exactly like it smelled, a bloom of fish and ferment. I loved it. Each bite was an adventure. The front of my tongue explored the sour notes from the lime I squeezed in and the back explored the settled concentrate of the anchovies. Every dip I made with the spoon unearthed some vegetable or sea creature or another. I lived for the crunch of a surprise piece of pork skin or a some pork fat that was masquerading as a noodle.
Is this what bún mắm tastes like in Saigon? Was I turning my nose up at paying a mere $2.50 for this wonderment? Or is the chef at Hà Tiên Quán just extremely good at her job?
I'll never know. Well, not until the next time Vietnam beckons me back. Could be next week.