I haven’t actually verified this statistic, but I would say that for every 100 restaurants that offer pho in the Bay Area, only one restaurant will offer bun mam. I could be over-estimating the scarcity of this Vietnamese fermented-fish soup, but I also know that my numbers can’t be off by very much, either. You have to do some serious legwork to track down a bowl of bun mam, even in the neighborhoods that are stacked with Vietnamese restaurants. I’m still not sure why this is the case. Is it because pho is geared more generally towards Western tastes, since it’s based upon a beef broth? Or is bun mam so über-regional that it’s simply less popular, even in Vietnam? These are the things that I think about.
The front-runner for the Bay Area’s best bun mam is probably Bun Mam Soc Trang in Oakland, which really captures the spoils of the Mekong Delta (where the Vietnamese city of Soc Trang is located). The bun mam at BMST features tender shrimp, earthy catfish, crispy pork, steamed pork belly, and of course, vermicelli noodles. If you’ve never tasted bun mam, the word “fermented-fish” might still be rolling around in your head. And what about this broth? Well, at BMST, the bun mam broth isn’t nearly as pungent as, say, fish sauce. In fact, it’s subtle in its complexity and delicate in its flavor. And it will make you forget about all but the very best pho.