Banh Cuon and Bug Juice

According to an expert, North Vietnamese food without water beetle essence is like a hot dog without mustard.

"My grandmother made her own fermented fish sauce in Chicago," he said. "There weren't any Vietnamese stores up there." Eventually, Han made his way to Houston, where he now runs a translation service. He describes himself as "a foodie who is passionate about the true cuisine of Vietnam."

In his e-mail, Han wrote, "There is a part of Vietnamese cuisine that is dying, and it is the original fusion cuisine of North Vietnam and France. Most of these dishes are not found in Vietnamese restaurants unless the owner is from the north. We northerners like to use dill, tomatoes, kohlrabi, asparagus, and butter and wine in our food."

Upscale French-Vietnamese restaurants like Le Colonial, a chain with locations in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, are inspired by Northern Vietnamese cooking, Han said. He wishes we had this kind of food in Houston. (Me too.)

Vietnamese tradition: banh cuon with ground pork.
Troy Fields
Vietnamese tradition: banh cuon with ground pork.

Location Info


Thien Thanh

11210 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072

Category: Hotels and Resorts

Region: Outer Loop - SW


Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays.

Banh cuon with pork roll: $5.75

Banh cuon with ground pork: $5.75

Bahn cuon with BBQ pork: $6.25

Hot snail soup: $6.25

Hanoi BBQ pork: $8.95

11210 Bellaire Blvd, 281-564-0419.

South Vietnamese food has a lot of Chinese influences, Han said, while Central Vietnam was once the home of a Hindu kingdom. Dishes like mi quang, made with lots of turmeric, probably have their roots in Indian cooking. He recommended that I go see the "Arts of Ancient Vietnam" show now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to get a feel for the varied influences on the long history of Vietnamese culture and cuisine.

Between the banh cuon demo, the food history lecture and the bug juice, I felt like our dinner was a pretty good intro to the flavors of North Vietnam. The hostess at Thien Thanh was surprised to see an Anglo eating ca cuong, but it was no big deal. As I told Carl Han, I had eaten this stuff before. Ca cuong is called mang da sauce in Thailand. I had steamed fish with an extremely pungent mang da sauce at a Laotian restaurant in the north of Thailand. It smelled like old blue cheese.

The artificial water beetle extract that Han was carrying had a floral aroma with a little background cheesiness, but all in all, it was downright pleasant compared with the Laotian stuff. Since my dinner with Carl Han, I have been looking for a store where I can buy my own bottle of bug juice to take with me when I eat banh cuon. Who wants a hot dog without mustard?

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