Banh xeo does not mean "slightly deflated yellow football" in Vietnamese, though that's what the version at Le Viet restaurant on Westheimer looks like. As soon as our waitress set it down on the table, I knew we were in trouble. The appetizer was bigger than the entrées.
Banh xeo actually means "Vietnamese crepe." But Vietnamese crepes behave quite differently from the sort of crepes they serve at French restaurants. A French crepe is a bland, thin pancake that you generally roll or fold up with a stuffing inside.
A Vietnamese crepe is cooked with shrimp and spices in a rich coconut milk and flour batter until it's crispy. Then it's folded over a stuffing of bland bean sprouts. If you didn't know any better, you would probably try to eat the crispy Vietnamese crepe and bean sprout stuffing like an omelet or, well, a crepe. But that would be wrong.
Banh xeo is served with a plate of lettuce leaves and herbs. To eat it, you tear off a piece of the savory crepe skin and place it, along with some of the bean sprouts, in a lettuce leaf. Then you add mint, cilantro, chile sauce or whatever else you like, roll up the lettuce leaf and eat the whole thing. The crepe, which you would usually think of as a wrapper, is actually the stuffing.
The banh xeo at Le Viet was especially crispy and heavily studded with shrimp. The herb plate included cilantro, spearmint, peppermint and the exotic Vietnamese herb called fish mint, which imparts an outrageous fishy twang to everything it touches. It was one of the best Vietnamese crepes I have ever had. Which is odd, since Le Viet is a restaurant that caters to mainstream diners.
Too many Houston Vietnamese restaurants think that the way to please the Anglo market is to dress up the dining room and add crab and cream cheese puffs and sweet and sour chicken to the menu. Which is why I have always assumed the best Vietnamese food was served in hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the Bellaire Chinatown area that are frequented primarily by Vietnamese customers.
Le Viet and another Vietnamese restaurant for non-Vietnamese, called Vietnam Coast, have recently made me change my mind about that.
"You have to try the Vietnamese sandwich at Vietnam Coast," an Asian food enthusiast told me. I told her I wasn't very impressed with the bo luc lac (tenderloin of beef) or the noodle dishes I ate there. And I must admit, I discounted her opinion slightly because of her nationality. What does a Canadian know about Vietnamese sandwiches?
"Just try the sandwich," she insisted.
"How much does it cost?" I asked her.
"Four ninety-five," she said.
"Have you ever been to Alpha Bakery in Hong Kong City Mall?" I countered smugly. She said she had never tried it. "You can get three sandwiches for five dollars there. And if you buy five, you get one free." Vietnam Coast was a restaurant for Anglos, I told her.
The Canadian told me she preferred Thai and Vietnamese restaurants that catered to Anglos because she had no desire to eat all the weird stuff at the authentic places anyway. And so I dismissed her opinions.
Still, I was haunted by the idea that I might be missing something. So I stopped by Vietnam Coast on Hillcroft near Westheimer one day at lunchtime and ordered the damn five-dollar sandwich. It was a revelation.
Vietnam Coast is a cozy little 15-table restaurant with Mexican-American waiters and a Vietnamese owner. The menu includes a clever do-it-yourself section from which you can select a meat, such as grilled chicken, shrimp or beef, and then have it added as a topping to one of four "platforms." The four choices are listed as "vermicelli bowl, rice plate, Vietnamese sandwich" and "Vietnamese salad." My waitress recommended the grilled beef as the best filling for the sandwich.
I usually get barbecued pork and pâté on my Vietnamese sandwiches and studiously avoid the rubbery cold cuts. Even though the pork and pâté are okay, I have to admit, there is very little meat in the average sandwich. But what do you expect for under two dollars?
The Vietnamese sandwich at Vietnam Coast was far bigger than the norm; it came on a 12-inch-long roll cut into two halves. But it was the filling that really set it apart. The shredded carrots, cucumber spear, cilantro leaves, fresh jalapeño slices, mayo and fish sauce were exactly the same as you get on every other Vietnamese sandwich. But who knew how good a Vietnamese sandwich loaded with hot-off-the-grill lemongrass-marinated beef could taste? Who cares if it costs five dollars.
I had to admit the Canadian was right.
Vietnamese sandwich shops in Chinatown are competing with each other on the basis of price. But you get what you pay for. Vietnam Coast's sandwich costs more than twice as much as the average Vietnamese sandwich, but it is filled with a generous portion of hot grilled beef. And you can also get it with grilled pork, chicken or shrimp. Yes, it's a Vietnamese sandwich for Anglos. Say hallelujah!
Then I started to wonder what else the Canadian was right about.
The interior of Le Viet is pleasantly furnished with lacquered wood tables and modern chairs. The floor is ceramic tile and the bar features elegant dark wood paneling. Daily specials advertised throughout the restaurant include discounts on fine wines. (Who drinks Cabernet with Vietnamese food?)
On my first visit to Le Viet, I got some food to go. And I found that Le Viet shines at the simple stuff. The spring rolls were made with the usual stuffing of shrimp, sliced pork, vermicelli and herbs, but they were exceptionally fresh-tasting, like they had just been rolled. The summer rolls were even better. Shredded pork was packed around a thick cylinder of fresh green herbs, rolled up in rice paper and served with fish sauce. There was also an autumn roll with beef and a winter roll with tofu.
I also loved the sizzling beef salad, which featured chunks of grilled tenderloin over a salad of lettuce, tomato, red onions and cucumber tossed with a vinaigrette. We also tried the unadorned vermicelli noodles with fried tofu. The noodles were plain, but they came with optional toppings including crushed peanuts, herbs, fresh jalapeño slices and a rice vinegar dressing. If you add all of this stuff to the bowl, the noodles get pretty exciting.
After our banh xeo, we asked the waitress at Le Viet if she could get the chef to make the shrimp curry extra-spicy. "No," she said. If we wanted a hot and spicy shrimp dish, we should order the "shrimp volcano," she told us. So we gave it a try.
The shrimp was overcooked and the lemongrass and chile pepper "volcano sauce" was hopelessly meek. That's the downside of Anglo-friendly Vietnamese food. If you want it spicy, you have to do it yourself with chile oil, hot sauce or fresh peppers.
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I added "all of the above" to an order of mi, or curly egg noodles. The noodles usually come in a large bowl with soup and your choice of toppings. I got the traditional topping combination of barbecued pork and wontons, but I asked for the soup on the side. That way the noodles don't get too soft. The best part is you end up with two courses. They put the soup and wontons in a small bowl and the chewy egg noodles and barbecued pork in a larger one.
At $6.50, this bowl of mi is a little more expensive than what you find at the typical Vietnamese noodle house, but there's lots more pork and the meat is unusually lean just the way Anglos like it. The noodles were tasty, but neither one of us could finish our entrées. We were both too stuffed from eating half of the football-sized Vietnamese crepe.
I don't think I'll stop going to Vietnamese joints in Chinatown anytime soon. But I will henceforward give kinder consideration to Anglo-friendly Asian restaurants and the Canadians who recommend them. Le Viet and Vietnam Coast have a lot going for them.
I wonder what a half a pound of hot pastrami would taste like on a Vietnamese sandwich?