No Mo’ Pho
No mo’ pho.
Shout it out, brethren and sisterns.
Why? Because banh cuon is the kind.
Like the aforementioned pho, banh cuon comes from the north of Vietnam. So it’s no surprise the gelatinous crepe-ish dish is kissin’ cousin to the Cantonese dim sum staple, cheung fun.
Bahn means pastry or cake. Cuon is to roll. That’s pretty much the concept: Steam a sheet of rice flour, add filling and roll it into a rectangle.
The aptly named Banh Cuon Tay Ho, anchor tenant at the Pacific Rim Plaza at Stockton and 65th St., brings this new culinary experience to my mouth.
It took two tries, though.
On the first visit, accompanied by Christine Haddon, the glue that holds the California Chamber of Commerce together, we allow the establishment’s Patriarch — an ebullient gray-haired gent — to talk us into other fare the clean, high-ceiled restaurant offers: Menu Items 32 and 38.
We’re seated beneath the flat screen television. It is tuned to CNN. Conversation is challenging. But we bone up on current events.
Whilst learning Michelle Obama will shatter stereotypes of African-American women, we sample banh xeo, billed as a “Vietnamese Soft Taco.” The yellowish indeed taco-shaped crepe – turmeric gives it the color – is stuffed with basil, sprouts, a few wee shrimpies and some pork.
It, like everything else, gets dipped in the ubiquitous nuoc mam. The restaurant stations a quart size pitcher of the sweet-flavored fish sauce on each table.
Then comes Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong, a large bowl of vermicelli festooned with bean sprouts, cucumber sticks, mint and shredded carrots. Some sweet BBQ pork slices and a couple pre-fab tasting egg rolls are shoehorned in. At $6.95, one of the more expensive items on the menu.
Three large battered prawns adrift on a raft of egg noodles is Mi Tom Dac Biet. The Patriarch gestures for us to empty a cup of broth into the biet bowl, creating a sort of faux pho. The menu says the generously portioned entrée was cooked with a “special sauce.”
The Patriarch’s English and our command of Vietnamese are comparable. Best guess as to the sweet-and-sour glaze is tamarind since it was a tarter version of the glaze on me krob in Thai restaurants.
Our intent is to share dishes. We are initially thwarted because the glazed noodles can’t be pried apart with chopsticks. Christine asks the Matriarch for a knife. The Patriarch, in turn, presents us with scissors, which he says will work better.
Christine allows as to how she’s never been given scissors at a restaurant before. We reflect on whether the scissors come from the restaurant’s office or fresh from the dishwasher.
We’re out the door for $23 and change. But no banh cuon.
H.D. Palmer, the spokesman for the state Department of Finance, a man so parsimonious with taxpayer money he uses initials rather than a first name, joins me to complete the mission and orders the most expensive item on the menu: the $7.95 banh hoi, rectangles of thin Vietnamese noodles topped with scallions, accompanied by a regiment of thumb-sized pork balls.
As on the previous visit, the requisite platter of lettuce, cilantro, lemon basil and mint, is fresh and crispy.
The Patriarch sees H.D. avoiding the greens platter.
“Roll together with fish sauce. So good,” the Patriarch says pointing to the platter and then the pork balls. He is right.
I live the dream: banh cuon nhan thit.
The crowded plate mounds sprouts and cucumber sticks at its center, banh cuon squares filled with ground pork and mushrooms to one side. On the vegetable mountain’s other flank are slices of cha lua, Vietnamese pork bologna. Capping it off: three yam fritters.
Perhaps it’s my slavish love for cheung fun but the banh cuon, bathed in nuoc mam, is an awesome combination of flavors enhanced by a sliver of pickled jalapeno from a jar on the condiment plate. A little cha lua goes a long way, however. Perhaps, like Scotch, it’s an acquired taste.
The Tay Ho sampler, Item One on the menu, offers a robust overview of the banh cuon world.
Although part of a chain, the place is clearly doing something right – and authentic – since business was brisk both visits and non-Vietnamese customers very much in the minority.
If not already, become a banh cuon believer.
Filed under: Restaurant Raconteur
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