What: Banh cuon (pronounced something like bang kuhn)
Where: Banh Cuon Cafe, 1212 S. Main Street, at Boren
Price: $3 for a tray of 6
Recommended: Definitely. Well, definitely if you like fish sauce.
Official Tasting Notes: I spotted the name of this microscopic cafe a few weeks back when I got turned around in the ID (anyone who has ever driven anywhere with me will vouch that I could get lost in a one-street town). I've been meaning to get back there since, and finally went today.
Banh cuon—steamed rice-flour crepes wrapped around ground pork, mushrooms, and fried shallots—were one of the great discoveries of my trip to Hanoi last year. Before and since, I've tasted lots of thick, gummy rice-flour cakes (chow fun meets mochi) called banh cuon, and never got the appeal. But the women who ran banh cuon stands in Hanoi have perfected the trick of making millimeter-thin, sensuously delicate crepes. Every time I'd see a stall I'd stop at it. Squatting on a little plastic stool in front of the maker, I'd get hypnotized watching her spread a dab of white batter across a steamer, cover it for 10 seconds, then lift up the lid and, peel off the crepe with a chopstick. Most of the makers would have 2 or 3 steamers going at once, enough to make a pile of crepes in a few minutes, which I'd dip (along with some fresh herbs) into a bowl of thinned-out fish sauce with chunks of steamed ham floating in it.
Anyway, the banh cuon maker at this deli doesn't sit out front with a row of steamers. The place didn't spend a cent on decoration. It has a steam table, a cooler of young coconut juice, and a table stocked with fried chicken legs, spring rolls, and pale-green sticky rice flavored with pandan. The banh cuon only comes with a few sprigs of cilantro and a fish sauce that is sweeter and fishier than the kind I ate in Hanoi (different regional style, probably). But the crepes were so fine—slippery and translucent, barely in your mouth before they vanish. Perfect for a hot day like this.