I get to realize a small dream of mine this week -- a skylight in the kitchen. We purchased our 1970s ranch house six years ago and remodeled the tired, inefficient kitchen but our contractor at the time told us that it was impossible to install a regular skylight due to something about our attic. Every morning, I walk into the kitchen and turn the lights on and keep them on so I can work. It’s not right to have to keep your kitchen lights on from morning until night!
Enter a different contractor, one who we called on to install skylight in another part of the house. He said that the kitchen was not a problem area whatsoever! So today, the crew arrived and for the next three days, our kitchen is off-limits during their work hours. We can barely make a sandwich without disturbing the work as the contractor has put up plastic drop cloths around the kitchen.
How to feed ourselves? I didn’t feel like going out today as we’ve just spent the weekend at the San Francisco food and wine festival in Union Square. (Hey, many thanks to folks who crashed the sold- out Asian dumpling panel/tasting, and those who withstood the sweltering conditions for my talk and signing!) The festival's rich foods and wine and cocktails do take their toll on your body. Also, I need to get work done at home. We headed to Trader Joe’s since we had to replenish our cheap wine supply. (They have a fantastic $8.99 Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir right now under the VINTJs label.)
Rory wanted a ham sandwich and I hungered for something Asian as there was little Asian flare at the weekend’s food festival. For my Asian fix, I selected the items in the photo above – a Vietnamese-style Chicken wrap ($3.99) and fresh spring rolls ($4.29). Since I’ve reviewed and written about Trader Joe’s Asian dumplings and even came up with a way to doctor up their Chinese BBQ pork for char siu pork, these Vietnamese-ish items intrigued me. What made them Vietnamese? Was that even important? What did they taste like? Here are my thoughts:
Vietnamese-style Chicken Wrap
The “wrap” is basically a spinach flour tortilla. Unlike most wraps that I’ve encountered and put down, this one did not have mayonnaise to make it gloppy as it sat in the cold case. The label describes the wrap as an interpretation of east meets west – the whole thing is “spiced” up by the “green spinach tortilla, premium grilled chicken breast, the best mixed greens you can find, and sweet carrots.” HOW IS THAT SPICING THINGS UP? As you can imagine, the flavor and textures are crunchy, firm, chewy, and bland. There was shredded jicama too, which is actually a cool tropical note but it’s not mentioned on the label; ‘sweet carrot’ is more attractive than ‘sweet jicama’. Who writes this copy for Trader Joe’s? Geeze.
I suppose that the dipping sauce – hidden in the center of the unusually clever tubular packaging – was supposed to also do the spicing up. It is described as being “like the traditional sauce found in the best restaurants” and I didn’t know what that meant either. Which of the best restaurants? It’s like asking which continent do continental restaurants cater to. The Trader Joe’s sauce is kinda gingery, kinda tart from rice vinegar and vaguely sweet. Said sauce contains exotic seasonings but I didn’t see nor taste any. Did it deliver ‘its special punch’ as promised on the label? Not quite. If you were hungry and didn’t know much about Vietnamese food, you’d find Trader Joe’s Vietnamese-style chicken wrap to be edible. I wouldn’t say that it was a ‘delicious interpretation’ but rather one that is tolerable.
Fresh Shrimp Spring Rolls
These two chubby fatties were more expensive than the wrap so did they taste better? I’m always suspicious of rice paper rolls (goi cuon) that have been refrigerated as the rice paper firms up and becomes rubbery. Then there’s the double insult to Vietnamese cooking when cellophane noodles (mien) are used to fill the rolls. As I’ve said before, that is the wrong noodle for Vietnamese rice paper rolls. The proper and tastier noodles are round rice noodles called bun. Cellophane noodles (also called glass noodles) are not destined to be served at room temperature. Sometime in the 1990s, someone said that cellophane noodles were “it” for Vietnamese rice paper rolls. I’d like to undo that practice as cold cellophane noodles resemble fiber optic lines, not food.
My griping aside, the cellophane noodles used were really big – a good 1/8 inch thick and wormlike. Employing the bigger noodles was a smart move as they weren’t as hard as the skinnier versions of cellophane noodles. All the lettuce, herbs and carrot were finely shredded to make the rice paper easier to roll up. The shrimp were pretty but tasteless. The rice paper was rubbery (expected) but not totally unpleasant (unexpected). So what you had was a slightly rubbery, crunchy, and somewhat soft roll. The tangy, sweet peanut butter sauce was actually not bad. Drizzle a bunch of that on the roll and stuff it in your mouth. As I was extremely hungry and desperate for a bite of something Asian, Trader Joe’s fresh shrimp spring rolls were alright. (Note that there was a fresh tofu spring roll and I wasn’t about to go near that one!)
At Vietnamese delis and bakeries, rice paper rolls are delivered fresh several times a day to ensure that the rice paper remains soft and the filling ingredients retain their fresh textures. But Trader Joe’s doesn’t masquerade as a Vietnamese storefront. The fact that the spring rolls came packaged in a Japanese sushi container, with the fake piece of green foliage, indicates that Trader Joe’s is not about to label the roll as being Vietnamese. Not everyone has access to freshly made Vietnamese rice paper rolls to go, and I realized that today when I wanted to satisfy my Asian cravings.
While I was not impressed by these two vaguely Vietnamese items from Trader Joe’s, I do have to say that it’s pretty cool to see Vietnamese-inspired items there. Has Vietnamese food ‘arrived’ to the broader mainstream? I’m not quite sure, but hopefully, these items bode tastier fare in the future. We just have to tell retailers like Trader Joe’s that the public hungers for flavor. It doesn't have to be Vietnamese but just taste great.
If you’ve tasted one of these Vietnamese products at Trader Joe’s, put in your 2 cents!
Btw, Rory thoroughly enjoyed his ham sandwich.
Related information on Vietnamese rice paper (banh trang):