Restaurant Reviews

Banh Cuon and Bug Juice

Carl Han ordered spicy snail soup, three kinds of banh cuon, and Hanoi grilled pork at Thien Thanh restaurant on Bellaire. Then he prepared several bowls of dipping sauces. For the meat-stuffed banh cuon, he mixed chile peppers with the nuoc cham (fish sauce and lime juice mixed with sugar) that was already sitting on the table. Then he added a couple drops of ca cuong essence from a tiny glass eyedropper into each bowl. Ca cuong is made from a water beetle that looks a lot like a cockroach.

"Eating banh cuon without ca cuong is like eating a pesto sauce without pine nuts, a hotdog without mustard, a Reuben without Russian dressing," Han told me in an e-mail. Han was one of several Vietnamese Americans who responded to my review of Banh Cuon Hoa restaurant ["Enough About Mi," November 12]. Many readers chided me for my dumb errors. Han offered to help. He also had some fascinating insights on North Vietnamese cuisine. So I asked him to meet me at the best banh cuon restaurant in Houston. He picked Thien Thanh. I had eaten there once before, but I was eager to take an expert on my second visit.

While we waited for our food, I asked Han to set me straight on a few things I had gotten wrong in my review. I had described banh cuon as steamed rice paper sheets. I got that idea on my first visit to Thien Thanh, when I ordered banh cuon thit nuong. That item is described on the menu as "steam rice paper w/BBQ pork."

"Banh cuon is not made by steaming rice paper sheets," wrote a commenter named Vinh after my review appeared. "It's a rice flour mix that is poured on the griddle, similar to how pancakes or crepes are made."

I asked Carl Han what he knew about the process. "Banh cuon is like undried rice paper — it's the first step in making rice paper," he explained. "I don't know how other people do it, but my grandmother made the crepes on a piece of canvas stretched on a frame over a steaming pot of water." The crepes are either rolled up around a filling, or eaten like a pile of noodles with toppings.

When our food arrived, Han complained that the rice paper crepes at Thien Thanh were too thin. Homemade banh cuon sheets are usually thicker. Han pointed to the banh cuon filled with barbecued pork I had tried before. "This is sort of the nouveau banh cuon made for Anglo tastes," he said.

"The most traditional rolled version (banh cuon thit cha lua) is made with ground pork that's fried with onion and wood ear mushrooms," he said. The rolls are lightly filled with pork and topped with chunks of the strange, white Vietnamese cold cut called pork roll. "I call it Vietnamese baloney," Han said. "And I love the stuff."

Han also ordered some strange savory bean muffins called mung bean fritters that are also a traditional accompaniment. I ate the two varieties of pork banh cuon with the baloney and bean muffins after dutifully dunking each bite in the water beetle dipping sauce. The whole experience was pleasantly weird, and the food was very tasty. The ground pork rolls were sort of like Vietnamese pasta tubes.

I thought the unstuffed banh cuon with baloney chunks would be very bland. But Han whipped up a different dipping sauce for this dish. He asked the waiter for some strong fish sauce and lime quarters. He mixed these up with ground chiles and a few drops of bug juice.

"Dip some banh cuon in just a little of this sauce," he said, demonstrating with a sheet of rice paper in his chopsticks. I followed his example. The sauce was so potent with salty, fishy, hot and sour flavors that it turned each bite into a wild flavor ride.

The Hanoi pork was a bowl containing thin sheets of barbecued pork, some patties of spicy ground pork that tasted like breakfast sausage, a pile of vermicelli and some dipping sauce. I wrapped the pork and noodles up with some herbs on the romaine lettuce leaves that came on the side. It was tasty, but I was more enthusiastic about the banh cuon.

We stirred a container of fermented shrimp paste into the hot snail soup. I liked it a lot, although the escargot were pretty chewy. "Vietnamese love chewy things," Han smiled. The soup had an awful lot of chiles in it. Between the chiles in the dipping sauce and the hot and spicy snail soup, my mouth was buzzing and my nose was running.

I wished I had brought some beer.

"In 2010, Hanoi is celebrating its 1,000-year anniversary," Carl Han told me. "I am going to go visit and so are a lot of other people with ancestors from there." Tourism officials are predicting 2 million foreigners will visit Hanoi next year. Han predicts the anniversary festival will trigger a resurgence of pride in North Vietnamese culture over the next few years.

Like a lot of North Vietnamese in the U.S., Han's family moved from Hanoi to South Vietnam in the 1950s, when the Communists came to power in the North. In the 1970s, they moved to Chicago.

"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.)

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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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh