The aroma almost blindsides you, not because you don’t expect it at this restaurant, but because you’ve never inhaled anything like it in this part of town. The air is pungent with the decay of a thousand shellfish, a glorious stink that would not be out of place at a Saigon food stall or a noodle shop inside the Eden Center in Falls Church.
But in Columbia Heights, on Sherman Avenue NW, just two doors down from a liquor store that has kept the locals supplied with tallboys and lotto tickets? It’s an aroma that signals change, integrity and courage all at once. It’s a bowl of crab noodle soup at Bún DC, and this version pushes a whole-hog agenda. Its gauzy broth is rimmed with a persimmon-colored oil, more timid than terrifying, and front-loaded with pig offal: heart, liver, blood and even crunchy strips of ear, which are the antidote to those luscious pieces of pork belly also submerged in the bowl.
Over the years, the District has become exquisitely familiar with the sweet, star-anise-kiss of Vietnamese pho, but this bún soup is something else altogether. It’s unapologetic in the buzz saw funk of fermented crab paste that infuses the pork and chicken broth. It’s so good you’ll sigh after you’ve slurped up the last rice noodle strand.
When it opened this summer, Bún DC had to be the buzziest Vietnamese restaurant in Washington. Probably because we’re a town awash with pho parlors. Probably because we lost an old friend last year with Nam-Viet in Cleveland Park. And probably because Bún DC has a connection to Pho Viet, the beloved noodle-soup shop less than a mile away in the same neighborhood of Columbia Heights. Dep Le, the 70-year-old Vietnam native behind Bún DC, is also the mother of Phi “Nina” Nguyen, one half of the husband-and-wife team that animates Pho Viet.
You won’t find pho at Bún DC, which instead buries vermicelli-style rice noodles in a variety of other homestyle dishes. Recipe development has been neatly divided between mother and daughter: Le, a devout Buddhist, has created the vegetarian dishes, and Nguyen the meat-based ones. The dried bún, or rice noodles, are outsourced to a manufacturer, which is standard procedure for Vietnamese American cooks but not so much for those back in the mother country. In Vietnam, it’s a fresh-noodle culture, says Andrea Nguyen (no relation to Nina), the James Beard Award-winning author who let me pick her brain about Vietnamese bún. (Her first lesson when I pronounced the word: It’s “boon,” dummy, not “bun.”)
Andrea helped me wrangle with an issue that I encountered with the dry vermicelli bowls at Bún DC, the ones without broth. No matter how tasty the toppings in a particular bowl — maybe the golden, peanut-dusted crispy rolls or the grilled lengths of sweet Vietnamese pork sausage — I could never stir the dish’s disparate elements into a coherent bite, even with an extra application of nuoc-mam sauce. I suspected the problem might lie with the nuoc mam itself, a fish-sauce-based condiment whose sole job is to bring order out of the chaos of a bún bowl. But the housemade nuoc mam, though mild in spice, is stellar. Its umami rot is powerful enough to make worlds align.
So I then turned my attention to the noodles, the fragile, opaque strands that are supposed to roll around in nuoc mam until they’re coated in a microscopic layer of the magical sauce. These noodles were clearly slow on the uptake. You could grab your chopsticks and blend the assorted ingredients like a Vitamix and still find a shallow pool of nuoc mam at the bottom of your bowl. Andrea says noodles that are too wet or made with too much starch, as some dried noodles are, do not serve as adequate sponges.
Consider this my plea to Le and Nguyen: As a restaurant built around bún, please rethink your vermicelli-style noodles.
I submit this suggestion as both a food critic and a fellow seeker in search of enlightenment. Nguyen tells me that Bún DC is more than a restaurant. It’s a daily, unspoken fundraiser to help Le build a temple back in Saigon. The family matriarch has already purchased the land and has been slowly constructing her temple, brick by brick. Nguyen figured it would be better to channel a restaurant’s profits into the project than to drain her mother’s retirement account.
I’m not recommending that you visit Bún DC as an act of charity. That’s not the bargain we strike with restaurants. I’m suggesting that you treat Bún DC as you would any other selfish-giving opportunity: Find something you want and like, and then give (or eat) till it hurts. I found plenty of dishes that are worth scaling the front porch steps at this small, sky-blue rowhouse, starting with the crab noodle soup with pork organs.
The fresh rolls, stuffed with your choice of protein, are verdant variations on the Vietnamese classic: The appetizer features a whole green leaf tucked into each rice paper cylinder so that the leaf’s frilly edges tower above the bite, as if the lettuce were growing right out of the roll. Vivid and delicious. The fried rolls, Amish-plain by comparison, still deliver the goods. The heartiest appetizer is, for all practical purposes, an entree: an assortment of Bún DC’s greatest hits — sugar cane shrimp, Vietnamese pork, fried roll and more — draped over a woven rice noodle base that traps sauce like prey in a spider’s web.
You can safely skip the banh mi, at least until Le and Nguyen find rolls that won’t fall apart faster than an H&M dress shirt. But don’t miss the line of bún bò Hue soups, which tap a rich vein of flavor, especially the xà special, a murky beef broth infused with lemon grass, enriched with pig’s blood and ignited with chile oil. Just as important, the bowl swims with thick, spaghetti-like rice noodles, as absorbent as a beach towel. With this bún, you won’t miss a drop of your soup.
2905 Sherman Ave. NW, 202-412-6113, bunwdc.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, and Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4.95 to $16.95 for appetizers; $5.95 to $12.95 for sandwiches, bowls and soups.