When I think of classic Vietnamese dishes, they are usually quite simple. There are the noodle soups such as pho, there are the rice vermicelli dishes, such as bun thit nuong, and there are rice plates like com tam bi cha thit nuong. Another dish that I grew up eating and loving is banh cuon, what I consider a bona-fide, truly classic Vietnamese dish.
Banh cuon, which means "rolled cakes," are super-thin glutinous rice flour cakes. You can get them plain "thanh chi," with meat "nhan thit," and sometimes you'll see them stuffed with shrimp "nhan tom". I grew up with the meat-filled version, which are stuffed with a mixture of ground pork, shiitake mushrooms and onions.
Like China's famous soup dumplings, the thinner the banh cuon, the better it is. There are several restaurants in Houston that specialize in this dish -- Banh Cuon Tay Ho, Banh Cuon Thien Thanh, and Huong Mai Banh Cuon, and Banh Cuon Hoa -- but for the past several weeks, I have not been able to get enough of the banh cuon nhan thit (rice cakes stuffed with meat) at Pho Thai Binh Duong, a special that is only available on weekends.
The super-thin banh cuon at Pho Thai Binh Duong are so delicate that they're translucent. An order of eight rolls, served with some Vietnamese fried ham (cha), blanched bean sprouts, sweet basil, fried onions, and blended fish sauce (nuoc mam cham) is only $5.95, and just one bite immediately transports me to the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam, home to the best banh cuon in the world. In fact, the only other place I've had banh cuon this thin and this good was in Hanoi, when I visited in 2004. I've been searching for something similar ever since, and now that I've found it, I make a point of stopping by as often as possible.
The traditional way to make banh cuon is to pour rice flour batter on thin round screen, which sits above a pot of steam. It's the steam that cooks the paper thin cake, which is then transferred by spatula to a plate, filled with meat and then rolled quickly by hand. It's an art that needs to be mastered, which is why Pho Thai Binh Duong only serves it on the weekends. They have a Vietnamese lady who is trained specifically on how to make the banh cuon, and she is only in the house on weekends.
Another secret to this stellar dish is the owner's own blend of made-from-scratch rice flour batter, which has just the right amount of elasticity and just the right amount of viscosity so that it doesn't thicken too much when it's poured. A generous spoonful of filling makes each roll a small work of art, and each bite so good that eight rolls is not ever enough, which is why I always order two.
Banh cuon is not for everyone, but if you love dumplings, I think you'll just love these. And even if you don't like them, it will save you the trip to Hanoi, because these are just as good.