Bún bò xả ớt is an iconic Vietnamese lemongrass chili beef, sweet, smoky, and delicious, traditionally served up with rice, noodles, or in salad rolls.

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.

Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

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.

Steph doesn’t really know it, but it was even a housewarming gift my mom gave us when we moved in together: a 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.

Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

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 xả ớt?

Bò xả 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.

Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

What cut of beef should you use for bò xả ớt?

The best cut of beef for bò xả 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.

Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

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.

Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

Mortar and Pestle

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 does. It’s completely optional, and you can just chop away, but to me, the mortar and pestle makes all the difference.

Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

Spice level

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
Mike

Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

The Best Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe

Serves 4
5 from 5 votes
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Marinating Time 1 hr
Total Time 1 hr 30 mins

Ingredients

  • 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 sliced, or other red chili of choice
  • 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

Instructions

  • At least 1 hour before (overnight is better), marinate the beef: crush 1 tablespoon of sugar, half the ginger, 2 cloves of garlic, half the lemongrass, and 1 Thai chili in a mortar and pestle. Combine with the thinly sliced beef, along with 1 tablespoon each of fish sauce, oyster sauce, and oil. Mix well, then cover and store in the fridge.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • 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.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • 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.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • 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.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • 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 oil.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • 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.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • 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.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

Estimated Nutrition

Nutrition Facts
The Best Bún Bò Xả Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe
Amount Per Serving
Calories 299 Calories from Fat 95
% Daily Value*
Fat 10.6g16%
Saturated Fat 3.1g19%
Cholesterol 101mg34%
Sodium 1201mg52%
Potassium 495mg14%
Carbohydrates 13g4%
Fiber 0.2g1%
Sugar 10.4g12%
Protein 36.5g73%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

17 Comments

  1. Sabrina says:

    this is so interesting, both about your Mom’s cuisine and the recipe, great flavors! And yes, grilled meat is best!

  2. Nitin says:

    I love bun bo xa! I used to work at a Vietnamese restaurant in college and it was the best! That’s when I fell in love with Vietnamese food and like you mentioned: it was the food I didn’t know I was missing. Till
    Today the way Thu Tran made his version (and we got a dinner to take home every night) was and is still the best. I tried recreating it on my own blog too. They called it Bun Bo Xao Xa Ot and ive realizes that the same dish names can vary a tiny bit.

    1. Mike says:

      I read your post, it’s awesome and yours looks really good! Did you get the recipe from the restaurant? It looks legit. The names vary mostly on preparation style, so Bun Bo Xao Xa Ot means stir fried. If you see Bo Nuong Xa Ot it means grilled (and it is amazing, we’re going to do it for dinner tonight in salad rolls).

  3. Jennifer says:

    Beef was delicious. Excellent marinade. Tasty dish and perfect dinner for a muggy summer evening!

  4. Annie says:

    Mike! Thank you so much for this recipe. My husband has missed being able to go out for this dish, and your recipe was PERFECT! We loved it so much.

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks Annie! I’m glad it worked for you!

  5. lizzie says:

    Made this for my dinner tonight and it was insanely delicious! The flavour of the beef was just divine. Thanks for sharing such a great recipe!

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks Lizzie!

  6. Amanda Le says:

    My hubs is Vietnamese American and I would love to surprise him with a dish like this. Only problem is I am deathly allergic to fish/shellfish. Is there anything i can sub for the fish sauce?

    1. Mike says:

      Hi Amanda, if you live near a Vietnamese/Asian grocery store like 99Ranch, they might have vegan fish sauce. If there is more than one brand, I generally suggest people to pick the one with the biggest text on the label in Vietnamese. Look for the words nước mắm chay – chay means vegan so be sure that’s included. If you can’t find it easily, I think you’d get 90% of the flavor just substituting with salt, my family often switches out for salt when we want a cleaner taste.

  7. Kristina says:

    Well, I messed this recipe up, because I was rushing, and it was delicious anyways! I have got to start reading all the way through before I start. I put all of the saucey ingredients together and tossed in the meat to marinate, so I really didn’t do it correctly, but the flavors were all there and delicious. YUM! Next time I’ll know better.

    Thank you!

  8. 5 stars
    i really like it!
    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Toàn says:

    Hi Mike, thanks for the nice write up & presentation. I’d like to point out a minor but kind of in the way detail: Sả
    Yup, that’s how to spell it: Sả
    Cheers & enjoy!

    1. Mike says:

      Hi Toàn, Thanks, I appreciate it! I know it’s ‘correctly’ spelled with an S, but in my family it’s spelled with an X because, well, slang. If you look at your local restaurant menu next time, you might see it spelled with an X as well. But I totally get where you’re coming from.

  10. yuna says:

    5 stars
    Made this last night for dinner. Left the meat to marinade for ~20H due to timing issues but turned out fine.

    Added all 8 bird’s eye chili (because we love heat) and it turned out the be perfect — spicy enough but not overwhelming (for us).

    I used iceberg lettuce to give it an extra crunchy contrast. Used short ribs, because that’s what we had in the freezer, letting it defrost in the fridge for an hour allowed the perfect texture to be able to cut very thin slices. The meat surprisingly reminded me of galbi! I’m thinking its the charred flavor since the marinade is completely different.
    This was an excellent dish that didn’t require too much meat and a good balance of veggies. Would definitely make this again — thanks for the recipe! :)

  11. Tonya says:

    5 stars
    We like medium spicy food so I used 4 instead of 8 chilis – glad I did as it was perfect for us. I haven’t cooked with fresh lemon grass before – it felt a bit tough so I cut it small, but perhaps that’s how it should be??? Anyway, I can’t wait to try another recipe from your site.

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Thanks for reading as always!
-Steph & Mike