Joey Sweeney’s #PhillyVegPledge Diary Pt. II: Búns, Hon!

All this week, our publisher Joey Sweeney takes part in the #PhillyVegPledge and shares his experiences, observations and recipes.



I began (and ended) my first day as a vegetarian with a softness befitting my new lifestyle choice: Lying in bed, enveloped in the amazing sound of spring rain. In between rising and retiring, luck seemed to have it that my first day as a veg (is that a thing? do people call themselves that? “veg?” probably not.) would be groovy times indeed: The date on the calendar was April 20th, or, as it is more commonly known, 4/20.

But first, I rolled over and fell back asleep until 1pm. That’s how good that rain sounded.

By that time, the morning rain had passed, the sun was shining, and I got into the spirit of things by powering the home office with a 1990 live recording of the Grateful Dead that was somehow still going strong in the middle of a drum solo when I turned it off later that day. As I pounded away at the keyboard, making various things go away, it struck me that here I was, a full 13+ hours into my first day as a vegetarian, and I hadn’t eaten a single thing. Nor had my fiancé, also working at home, downstairs. Negotiations began via Facebook messenger, upstairs-downstairs, because I am a gentle vegetarian now; only savages negotiate their meals and complain of their hunger pains by shouting across the house.

In the end, everybody won — we were having bún.

My first exposure to Vietnamese food was in 1990 when my friend Andrew Chalfen took me to Benny Lai’s Vietnam Restaurant on 11th Street north of Race in Chinatown. And honestly, I don’t think a month has passed since then when I don’t pop in, usually for any number of the bún (aka rice vermicelli) dishes on offer there. Nearly all of them are topped with one form of animal flesh or another, but underneath, they are all the same: The dish’s universal engine is simply the cold rice vermicelli, fresh cucumber, carrot, green onion, chili paste, and a dipping sauce (nuoc cham). If you want to get fancy, you can add crushed peanuts and bean sprouts and a protein on top, but once you’ve got the basics, you’ve already got a great dish.

For years, I’d been tinkering around with bún at home, but two things eluded me: How to get the noodles right, and how to get the sauce right. For the bún noodles, it finally dawned on me one day that they’re so slight that you don’t cook them (like you would spaghetti) so much as push them around in standing hot water for a few minutes, then drain and rinse. Viewed in that light, this dish today doesn’t actually require cooking at all.

That sauce, though: That sauce had me guessing for years. But then I met @bizscanlon, and here, I hand the mic over to her for her real, honest-to-goodness recipe.

Bún sauce AKA Nuoc cham

As I am an inveterate approximator in the kitchen, I am either a good, forgiving source of instruction or a very bad one depending upon your desire for exactitude. This one’s pretty simple, though:

* Combine equal parts lime juice and fish sauce (so, for the juice of one lime, about 2 Tbsp of fish sauce)

* Add about 2 tsp of mirin (seasoned rice wine) or rice wine vinegar (if you like sweet more, the former; if you like vinegar more, the latter)

* Add a few shakes of crushed red pepper.

That’s it. I also like to use chili oil, but that is best added individually as the stuff is potent.

From there, it’s as simple as putting it all in a bowl, and eating it, and if you’re me, gradually ramping up the Sriracha until your face is a gently perspiring slab of tingly beef. On the side, we had a little edamame, which is Japanese not Vietnamese, but I tried to make up for it by having a Vietnamese style iced coffee (strong as hell, milky, and loaded with sugar). I went back upstairs and that damned Dead bootleg was still on.

When I took this #PhillyVegPledge, I swore to myself that, in addition to abstaining from Not Dogs, veggie burgers, pizza and mac’n'cheese, I would also not deprive myself of my love for grilling. I have a plain old Weber that I swear by. The things last for years. And those gas grills just kinda bum me out. The so-called convenience of them is, in my view, canceled out by the better flavor and fairly swift prep time provided by a charcoal chimney. I love my grill, and this being the season, I am determined to use it, meat or no meat.

After rummaging around the fridge, spotting some fresh pappardelle and a couple of leeks, I had an idea. This being my first dinner of the pledge, I wanted to go big. I wanted dinner to be rich. I wanted it to be… not meek, like I was giving up something. I wanted to eat something that was going to make me lay on the couch and moan after I ate it.

And I am happy to report that I was met with success. Here, then, is something I’m calling:


#PhillyVegPledge dinner night #1: Pappardelle with grilled leeks & portabello, butter and garlic, ayyy, MANGIA!

A photo posted by Joey Sweeney (@jojosweeney) on

Leeks are the Lauren Bacall of onions. They’re tall, smoky, sexy, and they make any picture better just by virtue of their presence. This dish matches that lovely leek with my favorite pasta of the moment, the belt-wide pappardelle. For this recipe, you will need:

2 large leeks, cleaned
3 portabello mushrooms
1 lb. fresh pappardelle
olive oil
4 cloves garlic
balsamic vinegar
more butter than you are comfortable with
salt, pepper, and grated romano cheese

Start by firing up the grill: You’ve got a whole grill going for just a few things, so you might as well think ahead. (In my case, I threw some red peppers on there to make grill-roasted peppers for something else down the line.) As the coals are getting hot, quick dip the portobellos in some oil and vinegar; you don’t have to marinade them as such, just a few minutes will do.

When the grill is ready, throw on the portabellos and the leeks, which you will have wiped with olive oil. They’ll only need a few minutes on each side, and you don’t need to cook them through, because in a minute, you’ll be sautéing them in butter and garlic. (In fact, if you’re feeling lazy, you can skip the grill altogether; you’ll sacrifice some flavor, but I am not the boss of you.) Once they’re ready, let them cool while you get the water boiling for the pasta and the sauté pan going at a low heat with olive oil, garlic, and one third of a stick of butter. (There will be more butter still.)

Quickly now, thinly slice both the mushrooms and the leeks and get them into that pan, folding them over, salting and peppering to taste, adding a little more butter if you think it’s necessary, or fun, or good, or loving, to do so. Once the water is boiling, drop the pasta in for 4 minutes (if indeed it’s fresh pasta). Meanwhile, keep an eye on the veggies.

When the pasta is ready, strain it, and throw it back in the pot, tonging it around with — yes! don’t lie! YOU LOVE IT! — another one-third stick of butter. Plate it, top it with the veg, then sprinkle with that romano cheese, and see you tomorrow!

Speaking of tomorrow, I’ll be doing some reflecting on the nature of what it means when one animal eats all these other animals and that there’s even a whole society and industry built around animals eating other animals. Also, Israeli food!

– Joey Sweeney

Join us for the rest of the week here at, where each day, our fearless narrator will relay his week of eating like a responsible human being.

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