Food Fight: Battle Banh Bot Chien

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Let's face it: You don't want to listen to me ramble on about banh bot chien, do you? If you know what it is, you love it with the kind of passion and devotion usually reserved for the Virgin Mary or rare G.I. Joe figures still in their original packaging. If you don't know what it is, familiarize yourself posthaste so you don't kick yourself five years down the road for not having five extra years of deliciousness in your life ("Oh, banh bot chien, if only I'd met you sooner!")

But a quick history lesson, just in case you're one of those on the unfamiliar side of the fence: Banh bot chien is a Chinese-influenced dish that's become increasingly popular in Vietnamese restaurants. Had for breakfast or as a mid-afternoon snack, it's fairly quick and easy to make at home if you've got the right ingredients on hand (and, hey, you can use those French's fried onions for something other than green bean casserole!) but it also makes a great appetizer when you're dining out. It's made of cubed rice flour cake (which has the same gelatinous consistency as the omnipresent turnip cakes at dim sum), egg and onions. Most places also serve it with a tangy, garlicky sauce on the side.

In Houston, it's generally accepted that Tan Tan has the best banh bot chien in town. I've had Tan Tan's banh bot chien many times, and -- while it's good -- it's not my personal choice for the "best" in the city. So this week, I decided to pit two other establishments against each other instead to see who came out on top.

Kim Tai, 2602 Fannin

I like going to Kim Tai in the evenings, when there's no rush from the lunch crowd and it feels like eating dinner with your family at home. Mom's favorite show is on the TV (usually some suspiciously Lawrence Welk-looking Vietnamese variety hour programming), the kids are doing their homework at the counter and dad supervises quietly from a distance.

Kim Tai is known amongst food lovers for more than a few things: duck soup, pho and banh bot chien. And with good reason. The banh bot chien here is a modern masterpiece of sorts -- egg woven messily in and out of the haphazardly cut rice flour cubes like Picasso's strokes, onions strewn on top with a Jackson Pollock flourish. It's somehow more beautiful to behold than the carefully constructed banh bot chien I've seen in the past.

The taste is strong, pungent, sharp -- even more so when you pour on the accompanying sauce. The green onions and garlic give a hard edge to the soft, jelly-like rice flour cubes and the lacy edges of fried egg. This is a memorable dish, and one that you'll find yourself returning for time and time again.

Thiem Hung, 2108 Pease

If eating at Kim Tai feels like dining with family, eating at Thiem Hung feels like stumbling into a quiet, relaxed restaurant in Da Nang. There's some idiosyncratic Glenn Miller music playing on the stereo, clusters of Vietnamese men eating and talking animatedly at neighboring tables, and a somewhat shabby exterior that gives way to a cheerful dining room decorated with sea green walls and handwritten signs on chalkboards that extol the virtues of eating healthy and being happy.

Thiem Hung is more known for its banh mi (or so I'm told; this was my first visit to the little shop), but I was in a com dia mood the day I went and ordered that along with my banh bot chien. Both were large enough to easily feed two people, and the chargrilled pork in my com thit nuong was juicy, fatty, succulent. I don't know if I'll be able to try the banh mi after that -- I'll just want com thit nuong every time I go in now.

The banh bot chien, on the other hand, was a bit of an anomaly. It came out as a large, perfectly round disk, with the yellow fringes of fried egg forming a sort of doily around and underneath the rice flour cake. The egg had a very sweet flavor to it, almost like custard. But this didn't deter me from liking it. In fact, I set it aside and ate it (or as much as I could) as dessert instead of an appetizer. Eaten this way, it was an ideal finish to my plate of rice and pork.

The Winner

This week's battle marks one of those few occasions where it's difficult to judge a winner, partly because the dishes were so different and partly because I enjoyed them both very much, albeit for very different reasons. So let's just say this: Get the banh bot chien at Kim Tai if you're a savory fan; get the banh bot chien at Thiem Hung if you're a sweet fan. Either way, you're bound to find a new favorite.

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