Archive for the 'Banh Cuon' Category

Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant – El Monte

Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant - El Monte - Los Angeles

Even with an endless parade of new restaurant openings in Los Angeles, my current obsession is an unassuming eight-year-old Vietnamese spot in El Monte. My friend Thien introduced me to Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant a few weeks ago, and I’ve already been back three times since. This place is really something dac biet.

Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant - El Monte - Los Angeles

Whereas most Vietnamese restaurants in town serve a menu of the country’s greatest hits, like pho, bun, and the like, Kim Hoa Hue specializes in Central Vietnamese fare, specifically the cuisine from Hue. As Vietnam’s former imperial capital, Hue is renowned for its sophisticated cuisine, developed by the cooks of the royal court.

Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant - El Monte - Los Angeles

On each of my visits here, my dining companions and I feasted like kings. Never missing from our spread was the Hue Combo ($6.25), a sample platter of delicate delights: banh beo (steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp and cracklins), banh nam (rice cakes embedded with shrimp and steamed in banana leaves), banh bot loc (shrimp and pork dumplings), cha (steamed pork forcemeat), and banh uot tom chay (rice sheets stuffed with minced shrimp).

While my mother and grandmother were particularly fond of the banh beo during our lunch, it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite—winners all around, I say.

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Hoàn Kiếm – Los Angeles (Chinatown)

Hoan Kiem - Chinatown - Los Angeles

Named after Hanoi’s misty and mystical “Sword Lake,” Hoàn Kiếm in Chinatown serves just three dishes on weekdays and four on weekends. While the kitchen’s repertoire might seem limited, the menu has actually doubled in size since the Ho family first opened the restaurant in 1989.

The proprietors, who hail from Halong Bay, a city more famous for its limestone karsts and isles than its cuisine, draw upon family recipes that have been passed down for several generations in executing each of their specialties.

Hoan Kiem - Chinatown - Los Angeles

Most popular here is the banh cuon, steamed crepes filled with seasoned ground pork and Woodear mushrooms. Its texture was chewier than the banh cuon I’ve sampled in Saigon, Hanoi, and Grandma’s house, which signaled more tapioca starch and less rice flour in the batter. While The Astronomer and I weren’t gaga about the texture, we were both pretty stoked to try a new rendition of a beloved dish.

Hoan Kiem - Chinatown - Los Angeles

The nuoc cham (fish sauce vinaigrette) served alongside, as well as the slices of pork loaf and fried shallots, were wholly familiar. A dab of chili sauce from the condiments made everything taste even better.

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One Final Hurrah in Saigon: Vietnamese Crêpes

Banh Cuon Hai Nam - Ho Chi Minh City

For our final meal in Saigon, our friend Hawkins insisted on lunch at Bánh Cuốn Hải Nam. Narrow as can be, this restaurant has been serving the city’s best crêpes for decades. While service and decor is mostly minimal, the food keeps customers coming back time and again.

Banh Cuon Hai Nam - Ho Chi Minh City

The restaurant’s tidy alfresco kitchen faces the street, greeting customers with the aroma of hot crêpes as they walk in.

Banh Cuon Hai Nam - Ho Chi Minh City

Every serving is steamed and stuffed to order in the minimalist kitchen. We didn’t wait but a moment for our plates of the house special bánh cuốn to arrive.

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Bánh Cuốn Hai Nam Saigon – Alhambra

Although I’m not certain, I have a sneaking suspicion that my non-food-obsessed friends might be a little afraid of offering up restaurant recommendations to me. I think it’s the slim possibility of a bad meal and a ridiculing review to follow that keeps them mum. I was recently made aware of this situation when making plans to lunch with my friends William and Anne from college. Since William grew up in Monterey Park and knew his way around the San Gabriel Valley’s panoply of delights, I asked him to choose our dining destination. William hemmed and hawed, and after a dozen or so email exchanges, he still couldn’t offer up a single restaurant name. His nervous reaction had me feeling unnerved and even questioning my restaurant snobbery. Am I really that difficult to please? It’s a distinct possibility.

I felt like I took a huge weight off William’s shoulders when I suggested Bánh Cuốn Hai Nam Saigon in Alhambra. I had been wanting to try this restaurant ever since gas•tron•o•my reader Sharon recommended it to me, and this was the clearly the perfect opportunity.

The small eatery was packed on the Sunday afternoon we dined. I was happy to see large groups of friends and smiling families gathering around communal tables sharing huge plates of banh cuon. The positive vibes emanating from patrons had me in good spirits and excited about my meal.

While we waited for a table to open up, my friends and I perused the large picture menu hung outside. [Click on the photo for a better look.]

One of the huge pluses of dining with people who “eat to live” was reigning supreme over the ordering. Vietnamese rice flour crêpes prepared in every which way are the specialty at Bánh Cuốn Hai Nam, so I ordered three different varieties to share. The Banh Cuon Dac Biet Hai Nam ($5.80) arrived first.

The restaurant’s “special” platter consisted of an ample mound of rice flour crêpes topped with chả lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage), bánh cóng (battered and deep-fried mung beans, shredded taro root, and shrimps), bánh tôm hồ tây (battered and deep-fried julienned sweet potatoes with shrimp), mint, fried shallots, cucumber, and blanched bean sprouts. We drenched our banh cuon in nuoc mam, which was available in a huge jug tableside.

In the pantheon of Vietnamese dishes, banh cuon is one of the easier ones to get right, just as long as the crêpes aren’t too thick and the toppings aren’t too greasy. The flavors here were right on and wholly satisfying. The varied selection of toppings made the dac biet platter a fantastic choice.

Next, we dug into Banh Uot Thanh Tri ($5.15). I specifically ordered this dish because I was curious as to what “Thanh Tri”-style banh uot entailed. Even after polishing off the plate, I couldn’t figure out what made it particularly notable.

When I arrived home, I powered up the Internet to investigate. I found that the dish originated in Thanh Tri, a neighborhood outside of Hanoi. I also found a Chowhound thread discussing the very topic. According to Alice Patis of Alice’s Guide To Vietnamese Banh, “Thanh tri is basically just non-rolled, non-filled [crêpes].” I also asked my mother and grandmother their thoughts. They both believe that the only difference is semantics—Southerners call it banh uot, while Northerners call it banh uot Thanh Tri.

The bottom line is that the flavors are more or less “same, same,” especially when doused in nuoc mam.

Lastly, we went to town on the Banh Uot Cuon Nhan Thit ($5.25), crêpes stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms. The crêpes were nice and thin, while the filling was well-seasoned and plentiful. I would’ve appreciated a slightly warmer temperature, but it was solid product regardless.

UPDATED: The Astronomer and I revisted this restaurant with my mom and had a terrible experience. The food was subpar, especially the nuoc mam, and we found a dead cockroach beneath the table. Gross and grosser. I am definitely not returning here anytime soon.

Bánh Cuốn Hai Nam Saigon
1425 E Valley Boulevard
Alhambra, CA 91801
Phone: 626-300-8079

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