How did I resist not calling this the Best Bun Bo Recipe?! You have the internet to thank for everything being called the best x, by the way.
My family is from the deep, deep countryside of Vietnam – a tiny fishing village along the coast where no tourists ever visited. My mom kept baby ducks and baby pigs as pets and forebade my grandma from killing them for dinner. Like in France and anywhere else, countryside-folk and seaside-folk take food far more seriously than city-dwellers do, and this dish is a very important one in my family.
In her part of the world, my mom is famous for this dish. When she was younger, it’s what she would make for dinner parties and celebrations. A few years back, she visited some old friends in Melbourne. They invited a large bunch of people who all came from the same little village, and, you guessed it, asked her to make it for them. On one of our family lunches, my parents went on a long discourse over the differences in Australian baby-grass-finished beef vs USDA prime. I’ve heard a lot of stories centered around, or tangentially related to, this lemongrass beef.
(Steph doesn’t really know it, but it was even a housewarming gift my mom gave us when we moved in together: a giant 5lb brick of the chicken version of this stuff to be kept in the freezer and made as-needed. Steph always asked for more, but it never happened because my mom essentially retired from cooking.)
I would love to say that this recipe came from my mom, but it would only be a half-truth. When I was younger, I asked her how to make this and got the usual “a little of this and a little of that.” I’ve since refined it into the recipe below over the years. It’s informed and inspired by the taste of my mom’s version, and tastes very similar, but modernized. Honestly, I like my version better for its ease, simplicity, and reproducibility by anyone-ness. I can’t deny that my mom’s version will always be nostalgic for me, but this new version is my go-to, although maybe it’s time to invite my parents over for lunch with a big case of out-of-retirement pre-marinated meat and experience the nostalgia all over again.
Note: this recipe is for the vermicelli noodle bowl version because that’s how people know it, but my family would just family-style all the components around a tabletop grill and roll everything into salad rolls at the table.
What is bò xã ớt?
Bò xã ớt means beef with lemongrass and chili. It’s a favorite dish in Vietnam and increasingly famous in the rest of the world. It’s charred, smoky, lemongrassy, sweet, and slightly spicy beef, usually served as part of a vermicelli bowl or in a rice plate, or as the central protein of a salad roll party, although that’s usually more done at home. If you can find the DIY salad roll version in a restaurant, you’ve struck gold.
What cut of beef should you use for bò xã ớt?
The best cut of beef for bò xã ớt is a bit of a contentious debate. My mom would say triple AAA USDA prime ribeye. The internet says flank or skirt steak. I say, you are overcooking the heck out of this, it won’t matter. Get the cheapest steak you would like to get.
Chill your beef thoroughly before slicing, and don’t be afraid to pop it back in halfway through if it gets warm. You want fairly thin slices, 1/8″ or less. If you are buying from a butcher or a good grocery store with a meat department, they might do it for you.
Grilling vs Frying
In much of Vietnam, the correct way to cook any meat is grilled over hot coals, or these days, gas. I completely agree with this: if you can be bothered to turn on the bbq, you should do so. If you have a tabletop grill, these also produce excellent results (and is how we eat it when we have dinner with my parents on their deck).
But, I’ve also tried frying it literally every way: in cast iron, in stainless steel, in nonstick, and in a wok, and I can confidently say some of the easiest and best results come surprisingly from nonstick. The charring you see in these photos come from a nonstick–except the one below, which is cast iron.
Mortar and Pestle
The recipe doesn’t call for it, but if you have the equipment and willingness, a mortar and pestle goes a long way towards authenticity, both to the Vietnamese-ness of this recipe and to the countryside-ness of it too. Chopping doesn’t release the flavors and juices the way a good crushing in a mortar and pestle. It makes all the difference.
The name of this dish includes chili, and central Vietnam is known for some super spicy food, but it doesn’t need to be if you don’t want to fry your tongue. I’ve given the appropriate amounts in Thai chili to make this a pleasant amount of spiciness (my mom’s version would have 4x as many chilies), but if you don’t like spice, swap the Thai chilies out for another red chili of choice, including bell peppers if that is what you like.
I hope you try this dish, it’s one of my personal soul food meals. If you like it, please share it widely, because there are some truly terrible versions floating around the internet, though I’m sure that’s the case for any cuisine.
—lemongrass is my drug of choice
The Best Bún Bò Xã Ớt – Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Marinating Time 1 hr
Total Time 1 hr 30 mins
- 1 lb beef eg cheap sirloin, thinly sliced 1/8″ thickness
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 1″ ginger minced, about 30g/2 tbsp
- 6 cloves garlic crushed
- 2 stalks lemongrass minced, about 30g/2 tbsp
- 8 Thai chilies or other red chili of choice, sliced
- 3 tbsp fish sauce see note
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp oil
Optional Components for the Noodle Bowl
- 4 portions vermicelli
- 1/4 English cucumber thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup lettuce or cabbage thinly sliced
- 4 wedges lime
- 1/4 cup cilantro roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup mint roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup fried shallots commercially available
At least 1 hour before (overnight is better), marinate the beef: combine your thinly sliced beef with 1 tablespoon of sugar, half the ginger, 2 cloves of garlic, half the lemongrass, 1 Thai chili, and 1 tablespoon each of fish sauce, oyster sauce, and oil. Combine well, then cover and store in the fridge.
At the same time, make your fish sauce: combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of ginger, 4 cloves of garlic, and 2-4 Thai chilies (as comfortable) in a mortar and pestle. Crush into a fine paste, then transfer to a jar along with 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and 1 cup of water. Store in the fridge.
When you are ready to eat, cook your vermicelli to the time indicated on the package (usually 3 minutes), then drain and rinse well with cold water. Set aside. Prepare your vegetables. In the photo, I used quick pickled cucumbers, purple cabbage, lettuce, cilantro, lime, and fried onions.
To make quick pickled cucumbers, thinly slice 1/4 of an English cucumber, then toss with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse in cold water.
Heat a large nonstick skillet with 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Fry your remaining 1 tablespoon of minced lemongrass until crispy and golden brown, then drain and set aside, reserving the foil.
Add the marinated meat to the skillet and fry until well charred on both sides. You may need to do this in batches depending on the size of your nonstick skillet.
Arrange vermicelli, vegetables, and beef in a bowl. Toss with 1/4 cup of the fish sauce, then top with fried lemongrass, fried shallots, a squeeze of lime, and sliced chilies, as desired.