Archive for the 'Banh Xep / Banh Goi' Category

Hot from the Fryer

Cuisine: Vietnamese

91 Cach Mang Thang 8 Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Fried Finger Foods – cha gio (6,000 VND), banh xep (7,000 VND), xui mai (1,000 VND), banh tom thit (7,000 VND), banh bao chien (8,000 VND)

I hate to typecast myself, but the fact of the matter is that I have become a bit of a Deep-Fried Guru for gas•tron•o•my. The Gastronomer doesn’t allow just any old lipid to roam those squeaky-clean arteries of hers, so if a grease-laden meal doesn’t look ultra delicious (see Jollybee), she just might choose not to partake. Nevertheless, someone has to report on the less healthy offerings in Saigon, so I sacrifice myself for the sake of our readers. Don’t worry, I’m not suffering too much. Although I could pass on Western-style fast food, I find cha gio, street donuts, and other local deep-fried delicacies totally irresistible.

It’s not surprising, then, that I am a frequent visitor of a take out eatery called Banh Xep Chien Don on CMT8. The goods are always displayed on a table out front to attract passing motorists, and they’re usually fresh out of the frying oil. Prices are a bit higher than you might expect, but it’s totally worth it—these are some tasty treats.

My personal favorite is the cha gio—definitely a contender for the title of “best in Saigon.” As always, these pork-filled wonders are best piping hot, but even when they’ve been sitting out awhile they’re still excellent. Never soggy or burnt tasting, the cha gio have a perfect meaty, greasy flavor [note: The Gastronomer wanted me to edit this sentence on the grounds that it “doesn’t sound appealing.” Well, trust me, they’re greasy in a good way]. What really sets them apart is the dipping sauce. It looks like chili sauce, but it’s actually sweet and sour, which is much, much better in my opinion. I haven’t tasted a sauce like this anywhere else in Vietnam. While I enjoy dipping my cha gio in nuoc mam, I find this flavor combination to be even more delicious.

The same sauce is served with each of the shack’s other offerings. I frequently order banh xep, a solid, crunchy snack that is a better deal than the cha gio from a size perspective but tastes a bit more ordinary. These are quite similar to the banh goi I ate in Hanoi, but I find them superior due to the lack of mushrooms.

The banh tom thit are another hearty treat for meat-lovers. They’re basically breaded deep-fried ground pork logs, but the “chefs” insert a single shrimp with its tail sticking out the end to spice things up. Even more intriguing are the banh bao chien, which are essentially the standard soft white buns (albeit the version with no egg) submerged in hot oil until they’re golden brown. Wolfing down a couple of these will fill you up in a hurry.

The only real letdown are the xui mai—I had high hopes for these little fried dumplings but found them bland and totally uninspiring. The one time I tried them they were cold, so I know I should give them another shot, but with four other tempting choices, why risk disappointment?

Eating in Hanoi II

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When visiting Hanoi, my primary culinary objective is to sample my favorite northern Vietnamese dishes in the land of their creation or, better yet, try something I’ve never seen or even heard of in the south. The first meal of my latest visit was a late lunch. I was absolutely starving after an hour plus run and no food since 8 a.m., so when my intended destination turned out to be a tourist trap, I blindly stumbled into a wanton soup eatery. The place was basically empty, but it was definitely not peak hours, and I justified my choice to myself in light of the above rule by noting that wantons and dumplings are a Chinese import, and Hanoi is a lot closer to China than Saigon.

I was also intrigued by the northern spelling of wonton: van than instead of hoan thanh. Nevertheless, I ended up ordering sui cao my. I found it rather disappointing—the sui cao themselves were good, with nice peppery seasoning, but I was only given three. Bland slices of pork made up the majority of the meat in the dish, and the broth was nothing special. Sadly, it seems my judgment was clouded by hunger when I chose this place.

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Fortunately, I was more than ready to seek redemption in the form of a second course. I headed for a mien luon spot recommended by my Rough Guide tour book (as noted previously, their Hanoi street eats section is surprisingly insightful). I ordered the mien nuoc—thin glass noodles and crispy mini eels in a broth with fried shallots, bean sprouts, and scallions. Now this was the sort of eating experience I was looking for—I’m not sure whether this dish is even of northern origin, but it was certainly different than anything I had eaten before, and pretty darn delicious. The broth reminded me of a good hu tieu mi—sweet and salty and crying out to be drank when the noodles were gone. The dried eels were interesting—kind of like the fish-skin chips The Gastronomer and I sampled once at the Chinatown business expo. I had expected little pieces of big eel in the soup, but these were entire animals I was gulping down—the eel equivalent of the dried mini-shrimps used in xoi man.

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Dinner found me wandering again, but this time at a more thoughtful pace. I found a winner in Nguyen Huu Huan Street. First I stopped at a massive sticky rice establishment. The Gastronomer has tried quite a few varieties of xoi on Ton That Thuyet Street, but this was a whole different story—it seems the northerners take their xoi pretty seriously. Slightly overwhelmed, I glanced around at what people were eating before pointing at some sort of loaf and saying, “sin cho toi mot to xoi cha.” As it turned out, xoi cha (or at least this variety—there were definitely several kinds available) consisted of yellow sticky rice topped with shreds of hardened mung bean paste, fried shallots, and the cha itself. I made little progress discerning what the loaf was made of, but it was a bit chewy and surprisingly sweet. I don’t usually love sweet xoi, but the ingredients of this one melded perfectly. I almost ordered another bowl, but another stall down the street was calling my name (“Astronomer, Astronomer…!”).

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This one was run by a father and his three sons and served a mostly male clientele. On display were a number of pastries deep fried to order; I decided it was time to sample another banh goi. The pastry itself was similar to the first banh goi I tried, but the components were more evenly distributed inside, and the spicy dipping sauce, which looked remarkably similar to the broth for bun cha but tasted entirely different, was a welcome addition.

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I also ordered a plate of pho cuon. When they came out, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to dip them in the same sauce, but I decided to go for it. No one stopped me, and they went together wonderfully. When The Gastronomer and I tried pho cuon down south we were underwhelmed, but these were really spectacular. Filled with plenty of ground beef and copious mint leaves, they were quite tasty without the sauce and even better with it. I’ll definitely have to return for more.

I capped off my dinner with a couple of pastries from one of the small French-influenced bakeries that are everywhere in Hanoi. The chocolate tart turned out to contain coffee, which was a disappointment, but the lemon tart (R) was awesome.

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Day two began with an ultra-simple breakfast of bread and jam at the Prince II hotel. The baguette was one of the best I’ve had in Vietnam, with a soft crust and substantial exterior. Afterwards, I was still a bit hungry, so I bought a chocolate-filled pastry from a street vendor. I bargained the price down from 10,000 VND to 5,000 and then made the purchase despite knowing that I should have paid no more than 3,000. She aggressively tried to sell me additional pastries and even a trip to Ha Long Bay, but I declined. When I got back to my room and took a bite of the pastry, I found that there was in fact nothing inside. I hate being a tourist.

Despite my previous resolution to try something new every meal, when lunchtime rolled around I was really in the mood for some bun cha. I checked out Dac Kim on Hang Manh Street, recommended by Wandering Chopsticks and advertised as Hanoi’s most famous bun cha restaurant in the Rough Guide, but it was closed. Perhaps 1:15 in the afternoon was too late? Luckily, I was only a few blocks away from Dac Kim II, and I couldn’t resist going back (side note: I’m not sure if one of these restaurants copied the other, or if they actually have the same owners. I walked by a third Bun Cha Dac Kim in the Old Quarter the day before. Oh well, if they’re all good, what does it matter?). The nem cua be were even better than I remembered them, and the bun cha was also satisfying, although I felt like I received an inferior ratio of juicy sausages to chewy meat strips this time.

All in all, another successful business trip to Hanoi. Next time I look forward to trying pho xao, northern banh cuon, and maybe some barbecued bird.

Eating in Hanoi I

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After living in Vietnam for over 7 months without traveling north of Hue, I finally made it to Hanoi recently for a business trip. With no appointments on my first day, I was free to tour the city and sample some northern cuisine straight from the source. Overall the trip was a pleasure, even though I was annoyed by the constant pestering by cyclo drivers, travel book vendors, and sunglass sellers in the Old Quarter.

The city’s collection of lakes and copious (relatively speaking) green space were a breath of fresh air, and I found it surprisingly easy to converse with the locals, despite their ‘zzz’-laden accents. Maybe Rosetta Stone Tieng Viet was a worthwhile endeavor after all.

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When I arrived at the hotel, my room wasn’t ready yet, so there was nothing to do but go ahead and start eating. My first destination was a banh goi vendor recommended by gas•tron•o•my reader Wandering Chopsticks (and also, amazingly, my Rough Guide tour book. The Rough Guide’s section on street kitchens in Hanoi is a gem—I’ve never seen anything so useful in a mainstream guidebook). I had no trouble finding the stall with a variety of deep-fried treats. I wanted to try them all, but I had already planned to follow-up the snack with a lunch of bun cha, so I limited myself to a single banh goi.

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The first two bites were amazing—hot out of the frying oil, the flaky exterior melded wonderfully with the fatty meat inside. Banh goi are similar in appearance to empanadas, Cornish pasties, and the southern Vietnamese banh xep, and for a blissful minute I thought it was better than any of these. I loved the onions mixed in with the meat—something banh xep lacks. Unfortunately, my third bite was nearly entirely mushrooms. Unlike The Gastronomer, I am simply not a mushroom fan, so the powerful taste was an unpleasant surprise. The rest of the banh goi had an even mix of meat and fungi, but in the final analysis I’d have to rank it slightly below banh xep.

When I was almost done eating, I saw a couple nearby dipping their banh goi in some sort of sauce. I’m not sure why I didn’t get any—maybe it’s considered too pungent for a white man? In any case, I’ll have to get some next time I head up north.

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Next up was Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim (67 Duong Thanh St.), which was recommended by another reader, Teddy. Bun cha is one of my favorite dishes in HCMC, so I was stoked to try the original version. The two are relatively similar in style, but northerners don’t bother to mess around with a second bowl. Instead, they add their noodles and greens bit-by-bit to the meat and sauce. I tried this eating method once in Saigon and found it cumbersome, but it was much easier at Dac Kim because the bowl of pork patties was HUGE—probably three times more meat than a typical southern portion. The vinegary broth, with significantly more spices and nuanced flavor, was terrific. I think it’s safe to say that this was the best bun cha I’ve ever had.

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Even though I generally prefer pork to seafood in fried spring rolls, I felt obligated to try one of the nem cua be. And I was glad I did. The nem was wonderfully crispy on the outside and filled with large, loosely packed pieces of crab. It wasn’t cha gio, but it was damn good. If I hadn’t been so full, I would have gladly paid 7,000 VND for another.

Even after an hour-long run through the city parks, I was still totally stuffed from lunch and could only manage a light bowl of pho bo for dinner. I stumbled upon a random stall about a block from my hotel and decided it looked as good as any. The pho was solid—much better than the watery versions of pho bac I’ve had in Saigon—but it didn’t stand out as an all-time favorite. It was a nice feeling to be slurping down a noodle soup on a cool evening, away from the endless scorching summer of the south. Apologies for the lack of pictures—my camera goes to bed early.

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By lunchtime the next day, I was ready to feast again. I couldn’t leave town without trying cha ca, perhaps northern Vietnam’s favorite dish, so I followed the Rough Guide’s recommendation to Cha Ca Thanh Long at 31 Duong Thanh Street. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was quite impressed. The cha ca experience is much like hot pot—a rollicking meal cooked on the dinner table and shared with friends over a few beers. As such, it didn’t quite feel right eating by myself, but I still couldn’t help enjoying the meal.

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Herbs, particularly dill, play a major role in the dish. They are simmered along with the fish patties (cha ca) and scallions in a well-oiled skillet on the table, and diners reach in with their chopsticks and grab a few pieces to add to their bowl of bun. Thanh Long’s excellent nuoc mam was the perfect addition to each bowl. It all made for a classic eating experience, and I left Hanoi totally satisfied.

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