If I had to pick one Vietnamese dish made from rice flour and eat it everyday for the rest of my life (whole grain white rice doesn’t count), then bánh cuốn would be it. These rolls of thin rice sheet, filled with minced pork and woodear mushroom, gently dipped in nước mắm, make the perfect warm breakfast, light lunch, and quirky dinner. The question is where to find them. Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ tops the chart everywhere from Texas to Cali, but does Bánh Cuốn Hoa II come close? Maybe rival? Miss by a long shot?
I cheated a bit at the beginning. The first picture isn’t bánh cuốn, but bánh bèo, a rice flour spinoff drafted in the shape and size of waterferns, hence its name. Flooded with nước mắm, they make great appetizers while we were waiting for bánh cuốn.
Bánh bèo comes with a few toppings: fried shallot, chopped green onions, and tôm chấy (dry fried shrimp). The tôm chấy I usually have are totally desiccant, ranging anywhere between flaky and powdery, but these (I’m guessing homemade) shrimps are still plump, and more sweet than salty. It’s not a bad twist from the usual though. The flour part is a bit tired, they broke easily into pieces the moment my chopsticks pinched them. Bánh Hỏi Châu Đốc does it better.
Because it is very hard to go wrong with grilled meat, it’s always safe to get bún thịt nướng on first try at a new restaurant, also a friendly choice for those who have not had Vietnamese cooking before, want to try, but are still cautious. There’s no weird stuff, just rice noodle, crushed peanuts, vegetable and honest grilled pork. Nước mắm seasoned with a tidbit chili paste, a lot of sugar, and a squeeze of lemon juice would spike the taste to infinite pleasure. Bánh Cuốn Hoa II nailed it with a supertender juicy marinated pork.
As much as my dad is a fan of grilled meat, my mom is loyal to noodle soups. She ordered bún măng vịt (vermicelli soup with duck and bamboo shoot), which actually comes in two parts: the duck salad (gỏi vịt) and the bamboo shoot soup (bún măng) with no duck. Dunk the duck into the soup and you get duck soup :-).
The broth is quite pure and slender, free of fatty bubbles floating on the surface, not as heavily seasoned as pho or hu tiu broth, simply refreshing. As for the bamboo shoots, there were both the fresh kind and the re-hydrated dried kind. The dried kind is a tad firmer and more squid-like than the fresh kind. A lovely texture. Boiled duck is also very tender and flavorful.
Bánh Cuốn Hoa II has a pretty clean look. Varnished wooden chairs and tables, high ceiling, humble paintings of Vietnamese countryside sceneries on the walls. I took a peek into their kitchen to capture the banh cuon production line.
Clockwise from bottom left: 1. stirring the liquid batter (rice flour with water); 2. spreading a laddle of batter on a hot flat surface; 3. making a roll; 4. 3 kinds of final products: normal bánh cuốn (with minced pork and mushroom), bánh cuốn tôm chấy (dry fried shrimp), and bánh cuốn thịt nướng (grilled pork).
The lady was just too fast for my camera, I missed capturing the crucial step where she gently used a long chopstick to take the thin rice veil off the cooking surface and whip it aside for the rolling chef.
So here it is, the restaurant’s signature plate: bánh cuốn topped with cha lua, bean sprouts, greens, and fried shallots. The filling is good. The sheet is thin and not oily. But the flour has a sour hint. Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ is still the champion of bánh cuốn.
Price: a very reasonable lunch for 3:
1 bánh bèo + 1 bún thịt nướng + 1 bún măng vịt + 1 bánh cuốn = $24.57
Address: Banh cuon Hoa II
11169 Beechnut St. #K
Houston, TX 77072
Take a look at RavenousCouple’s recipe for bún măng vịt, it’s my new fav noodle soup.