Chat with Mr. James Luu and a peek inside Banh Cuon Tay Ho 18

    Ever wonder why Banh Cuon Tay Ho has the best steamed roll of all places? Thin like a veil, never too chewy or oily, the flour never tastes sour, and the mixed fish sauce never has the bitter hint of lime. Their secrets are mysteries to me. By chance, the Lưu family who operates Tay Ho 18 in Houston stumbled on my blog post of 4 years ago and invited me to the opening week after the relocation early April, which would feature a new item: crawfish banh cuon. I couldn’t come then due to a minor distraction called school, but a month later the place is stilled packed to the rim like an Apple store the day of a new iPhone release. I managed to snatch Mr. James Lưu aside for a brief chat during lunch rush, wonder if his staff liked me or hated me for it.

    Leaving Vietnam in ’79, getting attacked by pirates, rescued ashore but later tricked and stranded by the natives in the Malaysian jungle, rescued by an American helicpopter after a month in the jungle, immigrated to the US as an orphan (Mr. Lưu was then 16 years old, any child refugee under 18 without parent supervision was categorized as an orphan in US immigration rules), living with foster parents in New York until the age of 18, moving out to California to be independent, studying and later working as a legal administrator for many years, Mr. Lưu’s life journey had all the drama to constitute a movie. In 2007, the Lưu family moved from Southern California to Houston, and after surveying the restaurant scene, Mr. Lưu set up his steamed roll business as part of the Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ franchise.

    Last time I came, the restaurant stood inside the Hong Kong Market (HKM) complex, but according to Mr. Lưu, because the main patronage was customers of the market, the number peaked at lunch time and on the weekends but stayed flaccid otherwise, they closed at 7 pm, parking was difficult (the HKM parking lot is always crowded), and “it didn’t really feel like a restaurant”. At the end of the 3-year contract, he moved out next to Kim Son this spring, and business takes off.

    The new crawfish banh cuon, accompanied by a special terracotta butter sauce with a zing, receives warm attention, but the Number 1 special combo, bánh cuốn đặc biệt, remains the most popular choice among the patrons because it has a bit of everything: some porky rolls (bánh cuốn nhân thịt), some flat rolls with shrimp flakes (bánh cuốn tôm chấy), some old-styled Thanh Trì sheet noodle (bánh ướt) to eat with the sausage, a hefty shrimp-and-sweet-potato deep-fried. But just between you and me, I told Mr. Lưu that I’m loyal to Number 7 – bánh cuốn nhân thịt, that has everything Number 1 has except the banh uot, and he laughed in agreement.

    FB: Your menu spans all popular dishes of the 3 regions, with rice, bun, and noodle soups. Why don’t you limit it to only the rolls, the way specialty eating establishments in Vietnam limit to one or two dishes and their names become practically synonymous with the dish? After all, Tây Hồ is known for bánh cuốn like Ánh Hồng for 7-course beef or 46A Đinh Công Tráng St. for sizzling crepes…
    Mr. Lưu: It’s precisely because we’re known for banh cuon that we have to have other dishes too. If we had only banh cuon, it’d be sold out by 2, then we’d have to apologize to the later customers and people would ask how come a banh cuon place doesn’t have banh cuon. Besides, everyone in a family would like something different and we’d want to accomodate that.
    FB: So you make your batter fresh everyday? You don’t have some in storage in case of sold-outs?
    Mr. Lưu: Yes and no. The batter is made daily and processed for a few days before it’s ready, so it’s not like we can make it on the spot.
    FB: Is that the secret to your quality? Can you reveal a little more? *puppy eyes of Puss-in-Boots*
    Mr. Lưu: Well, I can’t tell you the exact proportion, but the water for the mixed flour is changed daily in a fermentation period. Tay Ho standard requires the batter to be used between 3-7 days after the first mix.
    FB: So that’s why the rolls taste a bit sour at some places, they left their batter sit too long?
    Mr. Lưu: Yes, longer than 7 days would result in a sour batter. But shorter than 3 days and your rolls would fall apart, you need the fermentation to give the sheet its elasticity. Actually here we only use 5- to 6-day-old batter to render the right chew.
    FB: What about the fish sauce?
    Mr. Lưu: Can’t tell you that. *grin* The two deciding factors in a plate of steamed rolls are the fish sauce and the batter, and I make them both myself everyday. There’s a lot to balance between taste and cost, the quality of pure fish sauce you put in, the kind of water to mix. You want it to taste sweet and fresh, and you don’t want the bitterness from the lime. We also avoid using MSG.
    FB: So I just have to buy your fish sauce then *grin*
    Mr. Lưu: *grin* Yes, we do have mixed fish sauce for sale, and it stays good for a month in the fridge.

    Between fragments of our conversation, Mr. Lưu was also waving at customers, directing his staff, printing the checks and exchanging handshakes with the regulars. The lunch rush was a spectacular sight. I thanked him for the meal and the conversation; had I lived closer, I’d relive my middle school dream: a plate of porky steamed rolls everyday for breakfast.

    Address: Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ 18
    10613 Bellaire Blvd. #A168
    Houston, TX 77072
    (281) 495-8346

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