one shot: steamed rolls at Banh Cuon Thien Thanh


My love for these will never cease. I’ve written way too much about banh cuon (Vietnamese steamed rice rolls) over the years, and if we’re friends, it’s highly probable that I have made or will make you try them the first chance I get. How much you like them kinda determines how much I like you. Bánh Cuốn Thiên Thanh focuses on the northern-style(*) bánh cuốn Thanh Trì, where small, flat steamed squares (banh uot) are served with cha lua (silk sausage) and/or shrimp flakes on the side. They also serve 2 other types: rolls with pork and mushroom – banh cuon thit (pictured above), and rolls with grilled pork – banh cuon thit nuong. The owner told my mom that the younger kids (pointing at me) often liked the third type the most. I always stick to the second. Continue reading one shot: steamed rolls at Banh Cuon Thien Thanh

New lunar year, new me


Yesterday was Flavor Boulevard’s 3rd birthday. Today is my nth birthday. Back in 2010, a good friend of mine used to give me a ride to San Jose at least once every other month, sometimes more, when I got cravings for Vietnamese food, and especially when the Lunar New Year approached. When Flavor Boulevard was about one year old, things got complicated. Long story short, I hadn’t been back to San Jose for two years. – Why? You couldn’t rent a car? – Well… you know the stereotype that Asian girls can’t drive? It’s true for this one. It’s embarrassing. People, even those who don’t like driving, feel much more relaxed when they drive me than when I drive them. I’m also used to driving in Houston, where signs are helpful and people are friendly. Driving in California scares me. I’ve been here for 4 years, driven here twice, and both times reaffirmed my scare. So Vietnamese food cravings are satiated with the places in Oakland, where I can reach by bus. I don’t remember what I did for the 2012 Tet (Vietnamese lunar new year), and there seems to be no record of it on Flavor […]

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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, […]

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Bánh cuốn Hoa – The rule of the steamed rolls

Like with most Asian eating establishments, it’s virtually impossible to answer the question “what is the best Vietnamese restaurant in [name of city]?” Let me stay there for about half a year, and I can tell you where to get the best pho, the best cha gio, the best bun thit nuong, the best banh mi, but not the best Vietnamese. Assuming you would agree that I can’t compare a place that specializes in noodle to another that specializes in beef, I would admit: I don’t know what you mean by “the best Vietnamese”. Do you mean everything on the menu is the best of its kind? Everything is good? Everything is cheap and good? Everything is cheap and good and the service is the best? Everything is cheap and good, the service is good, and the ambiance is the best? You see, there are more variables in your generic question than I could possibly control with my subjectivity. And that is not to consider the possibility of you asking that question just because I’m Vietnamese, which doesn’t bother me at all, but I’m usually not sure of how much detail you’d like to receive. (I’ve […]

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Rolling business in Tay Ho Oakland

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 […]

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Bánh mì Ba Lẹ Oakland

Must have been at least seven years since I had a bánh mì ốp-la (bánh mì with sunny-side-up egg). Most Vietnamese sandwich stores in the States don’t put eggs in their breads, but ốp la (probably a strayed pronunciation of “omelette” in French colonial days) is the most common type of bánh mì stuffing you can find on the streets in Vietnam. This store contains as much variety as twenty street food stalls: about 15 kinds of banh mi, with meats, pate, vegetarian, and even sardines (cá mòi), ranging from $2.50-$3 each. Then there are bò kho, bún bò, bánh cuốn, rice plates, bánh dầy, bánh tét, and a thousand other things. Thank god there is no phở here. Ba Lẹ’s bánh cuốn comes with a garden, finger-thick cuts of chả lụa, and cubes of deep fried mung bean batter named bánh cóng. It’s not as good as the shrimp-and-sweet-potato tempura accompanying Tây Hồ‘s bánh cuốn, but it has a lot more rolls than Tây Hồ’s for a lower price. Tây Hồ still has […]

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Banh Cuon Hoa II in Bellaire

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 […]

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The most delicate is the most tempting

My roommate is eating dinner, I haven’t had anything since 9am, and I’ve vowed to stay on this chair until I get a plot to show my advisor, so I can’t grab anything to eat yet (except the cookies within reach). The best solution to satisfy the saddened tummy is to blog about food. Above is a bottle of nuoc mam pha, and a jar of chilly sauce if you’re in the mood for crying. We come here frequently when I’m in Houston. It’s Banh Cuon Tay Ho #18, belonging to the franchise Banh Cuon Tay Ho (but apparently not on the website, which is good, because the website, oddly enough, is quite Chinese influenced, when banh cuon is as Vietnamese as it can get). I’ve blogged about this chain before, in San Jose, but the restaurant in Houston is quite different. It’s a lot more spacious (you don’t have to worry about accidentally flicking your chopstick, or worse, nuoc mam, over to the other table). In all fairness, it’s Texas. You can’t blame California for being mostly inhabitable. It’s also a lot […]

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Bánh cuốn Tây Hồ

Vietnamese It’s always interesting to read reviews online. A good place always has some reviews that smash them down mercilessly as if all those reviewers were served was a piece of wood with splinters and a side of mud. One thing people should keep in mind when they go to Vietnamese restaurants: order the house specialties. It’s in their name. It’s something they started out with and have earned a living from. It’s what they know best. It’s the difference between an authentic Vietnamese restaurant and a mass-production Chinese buffet. Try something else on the menu only if the specialty satisfies you, and if you want to be adventurous, well, keep your complaints to yourself. Adventures rarely bring satisfaction. If you ate at Banh Cuon Tay Ho in Bellaire, Houston before, Banh Cuon Tay Ho in San Jose will satisfy your craving, but will not give you the oomph and aaahhhh. Small tables under a small roof, equipped with the usual tray of bottles of rooster chili sauce, soy sauce, some other kind of chili sauce I’m not sure if my tongue would allow me to try, and a […]

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