On my last day in Seattle, Eric Banh took me and my friend, vegetarian
cookbook author Michael Natkin out to eat. We started at noon and I ended up
eating 4 meals with Eric that day. (Then I flew to Portland and had a very late dinner with other friends.)
Eric is the chef and restaurateur behind the Monsoon restaurants and Ba Bar; he also owned Baguette Box up until a little while ago when he sold it.
He and his sister, Sophie, operate modern Viet restaurants that are fun and
sophisticated tributes to Vietnam’s food traditions. We met in 2005 when I
dined at Monsoon after it had been favorably reviewed in Gourmet. Eric and I clicked
while talking about elevating the status of Vietnamese food. We’ve been friends
ever since. Every time one of my book releases, he and Sophie organize a
special event at one of their restaurants to showcase my work.
We hang out and eat a lot when I’m in town. Right now, Eric
is obsessed about freshly made bun round rice noodles and banh cuon steamed rice noodle rolls. For more info on bun check the bun primer post but what are banh cuon? They are thin rice sheets that can be stuffed with a meat and mushroom mixture (like bottom row in the photo above) or served unstuffed (top row in the photo) with slices of silky Viet sausage (goi or cha lua), nuoc cham dipping sauce, and sometimes bean sprouts and herbs (if you’re southern Vietnamese). If you've had fun noodles or think of banh pho noodles, banh cuon are thinner and not cut into noodles.
Though the noodles are more expensive, Eric
and Sophie offer it at Monsoon at a fair price to customers. On the weekends at
Ba Bar, Mr. Chau mans a banh cuon station by the front door, chatting with
customers as he steams and fills their orders.
Eric is advocating for stellar bun
rice noodles and banh cuon steamed rice noodles rolls so that his customers can
further appreciate Vietnamese cuisine. He
wanted to show me what Seattle had to offer.
When we set out on our afternoon food adventure, Eric took us
to his local bun noodle supplier: Van Loi Noodle
Company. There we met proprietors Auntie Xung and Uncle Trung, an older
couple that’s been producing Vietnamese rice products and running a deli of
sorts on Rainer for about 15 years.
We were too late to see the bun being made so Auntie Xung
walked us through how she made steamed rice noodle rolls (banh cuon). I’d never seen industrial equipment before for making banh
cuon. In Saigon, I’d visited a neighborhood banh cuon maker who ground her rice
in a blender and set up her equipment in back kitchen. There was no operation
like what I saw at Van Loi.
Here it is, captured in a slideshow-cum-video:
Did you notice these
things in the video?
- Stone grinder – Modern
technology for an old world method. That thing was the size of a small
- Nearly flat ladle
– Auntie Xung uses the ladle to efficiently spread the batter out onto the
- Long bamboo stick
– Every old school Viet cook probably has a pair of super long bamboo sticks
for cooking. My dad made a set for me to fluff rice. They sell them in Vietnam
at the markets. The one used here is extra long and thin, perfect for getting
under the rice sheet (about 18 inches wide) and lifting it off.
- Towel covered rod
– This was sensational. The makeshift tool helps to transport the rice sheet to
the tray. I think the towel was just a regular industrial dishtowel. Not much
What did Auntie Xung
sprinkle on the rice sheet? Fried shallots. The ones that she served us on
the plate didn’t have them. The rolls were tender and delicious. What did I say at the end? Very pretty, that's all.
When I asked the couple about their business, Auntie Xung
immediately said that they were tired! It’s a 7 day operation that starts
around 4am and ends around 6 or 7pm. They have to be there all the time. “We’re
getting old,” she said.
Eric revealed that they’d asked him to take over the shop
but he demurred. His restaurants were enough for him and his sister. “Fresh Viet
rice noodles are delectable, a tradition that needs to be supported,” Eric
Amen. If people are willing to pay for fresh ramen and
Italian pasta, why not bun, banh pho, and banh cuon? Auntie Xung and Uncle Trung
produce an endangered food. When they retire, it is hard to know who will take
up the mantle at Van Loi; their kids have careers that don’t require as much
time or energy. I imagine that their story resonates in other Vietnamese communities.
Banh Cuon Pointers
If you’re interested in exploring banh cuon, these tips may
How to make banh cuon?
There’s a home version in Into the
Vietnamese Kitchen on page 270 that uses rice flour and a nonstick skillet.
It’s about 85% as good as the steamed kind. Here’s a slightly larger photo of the one in
the collage at the top:
The steamed version can be done at home but rigging up the
steamer and such is a major time commitment. I basically leave it to the pros.
Where to buy banh
cuon? While you can buy them on styrofoam trays at Viet markets, they are
freshest at places called “lo banh cuon”. Google it and see what you get. Also,
they are sold at places that make bun rice noodles. Those shops are called “lo
bun.” The term “lo” means kiln or oven in Vietnamese so a “lo banh mi” is bread
bakery. There’s a certain industrial quality about it, though many places do
sell other kinds of food too, functioning like a deli or cafe. For example, Van Loi sells banh mi, fried cha gio imperial rolls, dumplings and other Viet snacks.
How to find banh cuon
joints? They are typically named “Banh Cuon xxx” and located in Viet
enclaves. Btw, banh cuon Thanh Tri is named for a famous spot in northern
Vietnam that’s known for gossamer thin rice sheets. To see the various options,
check out the menu
at the chain of Banh Cuon Tay Ho. You can buy takeaway fresh banh cuon from these places too. If you have a favorite banh cuon spot, share