Versus: Tamarind Tree Takes on Green Leaf in Battle Banh Xeo

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Tamarind Tree: joyous
Compared to pho or banh mi, banh xeo is an underappreciated Vietnamese dish. And that's a shame. A crispy turmeric-tinted, coconut-scented crepe filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts that's served up with a giant plate of fresh lettuce and herbs, banh xeo manages to be both hearty and light. Also, you get to use your hands: Slice off pieces of the crepe; wrap it up in some green leaf lettuce; toss in some Thai basil, shiso, or cilantro leaves; then dip it all into salty-sweet fish sauce.

At it's best, banh xeo offers both a wealth of flavors and textures that change with each bite. This week, the banh xeo of two of Seattle's most beloved Vietnamese restaurants, Green Leaf and Tamarind Tree, go head to head.

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Greenleaf: sad
At Green Leaf, the banh xeo ($5.95) seems to arrive at the table floating on a heady, heavenly scented cloud of coconut juice. Unfortunately, slicing into the crepe reveals a dish that feels carelessly executed. Clearly cooked at too high a temperature, the outside sports a few too many dry, black charred spots, while the inside batter borders on raw and is mushy. Inside, a small number of pale, sad shrimps and chewy pork slices (perhaps tossed into the pan raw?) are buried under a large amount of bean sprouts, which seems to be there to cover up for the fact that there's so little meat inside. The whole dish just feels like an afterthought, which is disappointing considering Green Leaf's consistently good food.

Compared to Green Leaf's crepe, Tamarind Tree's banh xeo ($9.50) is downright joyous. For starters, it's overflowing with not only an abundance of plump bright pink shrimp and nicely browned pork slices, but also meaty pieces of shiitake mushroom and slivers of soft, slippery squid. A generous heap of bean sprouts contributes lightness and crunch, not just a pile of white through with to search for meaty filling. The crepe itself is perfectly cooked -- bright yellow and crackly on the outside, soft and steamy on the inside. Each bite you build seems new, more flavorful and exciting that the one before, and by the end your fingers and hands are a happy, sticky, fish-sauce laden mess.

Verdict: Tamarind Tree all the way. Greenleaf badly needs to step its banh xeo game up.

 
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