Not many Vietnamese diners roll out steamed rice leaves stuffed with pork and mushroom, and among those that do, not many actually do it right. A good roll of banh cuon must be slick but not oily, delicate but not crumbly, the flour leaf thin but springy, the stuffing visible, almost poking through, on one side and hidden on the other, served warm. A good nuoc cham must be more sweet than salty, with a little zest of lime, and spicy is not necessary. You then pour as much of that honey-colored dipping sauce as you want all over the plate, soaking the cucumber, the bean sprout, the cha lua, and especially the rolls. You then savour. When it comes to banh cuon, Tay Ho rules, from Vietnam to America. But among the Tay Ho’s of the Bay, Tay Ho #9 in Oakland makes it best.
After taking over the business from her aunt, Duyên transforms Tay Ho Oakland into an all-American restaurant with fluent-English-speaking staff (herself on weekdays and with another girl on weekends), attentive service, credit card accepting, and a list of common herbs on the last page of the menu, something I haven’t seen at any other Vietnamese restaurant. It helps me at least, finally after 24 years I know which name goes with which plant. (Click on image for full-sized version). The food authenticity, of course, is preserved.
The menu features four types of banh cuon. The first, order #8, is the definitive authentic unadulterated version of steamed rolls that the Northerners had created and the whole country has fallen in love with: bánh cuốn nhân thịt (steamed rolls with meat). The more I eat it the more I crave it. The best part: flat, slick, crunchy pieces of wood-ear mushroom that accidentally fall out of the rolls.
The second type of banh cuon, for non-meat-lovers like my mother, is bánh cuốn tôm chấy (rolls with dry-fried shrimp). The shrimps, peeled and fried without oil or any liquid, get dried up and broken into a flossy powdery entanglement. That’s if you make it at home. Here I suspect the kitchen uses some prepackaged shrimp powder for efficiency, which has a beautiful scarlet hue but little texture and flavor. The rolls, though practically just steamed rice leaves, are still savourastic when soaked and glossed in that honey-colored sweet and salty nước chấm.
The third type is a modern spinoff with thicker rice leaf, bigger rolls, stockier stuffing that features grilled pork, bean sprout, and cucumber all in one, also at a heftier price (4 rolls for $6.95). Bánh cuốn thịt nướng is more of a filler than a delighter, but who says it can’t lift your mood while settling your stomach. Instead of grilled pork, shredded pork skin is also used, making the fourth type: bánh cuốn bì.
If banh cuon thit nuong‘s savoriness from grilled pork saves it from getting drowned in nuoc cham, the shredded pork skin (with some meat) in banh cuon bi are merely for textural pleasure, leaving chilipeppered peanut sauce to dress up the rolls. I have faith that nuoc cham would be a better roll-dresser though.
Address: Tây Hồ Restaurant – Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ #9
344B 12th Street
Oakland, CA 94607