lThis is probably the easiest review I’ll write about a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh (UPDATE: Psych… no it wasn’t). I know that going into it. The challenge will be how to look critical – as far as I know, these pancakes can do no wrong. They even cancel out the blatant misfires I’ve had – that good.
Bánh Khọt Cô Ba Vũng Tàu is my favorite bet in the city to get enormous rice pancakes filled with stuff. Delicious, delicious stuff. In fact, this is the only place where I allow myself to blatantly order things with seafood in them (damn you, The Gout!) and enjoy it – I don’t really care if my toes hurt for a couple days afterwards. Totally worth it.
For those of you new to the Banh Xeo (“Bahn Say-Oh”) party, the Southern version is a huge rice pancake filled with stuff, usually seafood, and made a nice toasty yellow with the addition of turmeric.
Since I’ll never be able to make something like this dish at home (it takes a lot of ridiculously special equipment and training), I haven’t bothered to find out the details. So bear with me as I take you through eating one of Vietnam’s most surprising dishes…
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Bánh Khọt Cô Ba Vũng Tàu is very near my house. I first discovered it with my Vietnamese friend, Duc, after which I brought every one of my roommates. It’s become something of a “homebase restaurant” for us, and I couldn’t be happier. I’d never had a vietnamese-style pancake before, and this was an eye opening experience. Like many entries in the Vietnamese cuisine, it combines multiple flavors and textures to create a distinctive whole.
In this case, the dish in question is their signature dish, the Vietnamese Rice Pancake, or Banh Xeo.
This version of the thing is huge. It’s easily 24 inches in diameter and toasted a nice crispy yellow and brown. The outer edges are paper-thin and crispy, while the center is thicker and filled with whatever stuffings you’ve chosen. These mostly consist of various types of seafood, green beans, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and/or heart of coconut palm. I must confess I haven’t had the heart of palm dishes – I’ve found the other ones so intoxicating that I come back to them over and over again.
|COME TO MAMA.|
My favorite is the seafood mixture with bean sprouts. Squid, clamps, and shrimp bring a special feel to it – especially since I shouldn’t really have seafood anymore. Coming here so often (it’s very near my house) has familiarized us to the waitstaff, and they’re happy to help us out with the menu.
One pancake is enough to feed two not-terribly-hungry people. It’s a really fun food to eat. You start by putting a piece of lettuce or other leafy green provided onto a bowl. Then you pick off a crispy part of the pancake, followed by some of the filled center (spoons are available for cutting… being at the mercy of chopsticks makes it difficult). If you want herbs they’re provided for you under the leaves, and mango and papaya shreds are an added bonus. I recommend basil every time, and, if you’re game, the mint.
Once you pile all this onto your leaf, you roll it up like a tiny little burrito and dunk it in the fish sauce provided. If you like spicy things, there is a chile paste you can put in your sauce, but by itself it’s just a standard fish sauce – salty and pungent. The result is a messy bit of heaven… crispy, salty, chewy, and fresh. The wet-naps provided (for an extra fee, as always) are totally necessary!
I’ve tried many other things from the menu. The fresh spring rolls (above) are good, but not the best type of spring roll on the menu. That honor would have to go to the house fried spring rolls (below), which are truly fantastic. As an added bonus, they come with lettuce and other leafy greens to eat them with – wrap and dunk! The papaya and mango shreds go well with both the rolls and the pancake.
|They take a long time to come out, but the spring rolls
are excellent. Fish sauce with a small bit of chili in the
bowl on the right. I like more.
Also very good is the dish that the restaurant is named after: Bánh Khọt. These things are GREAT. They’re basically little fried shrimp crackers loaded with a prawn and some seasonings. Served with papaya and mango shreds and dunked into the fish sauce, they’re a special treat.
The crab and corn soup was just ok, but the stir fried yellow noodle dishes were a little better. The crispy shrimp crackers (banh khot) are great, and banh beo (tiny, steamed bowls of rice pancake with toppings) are great if you’re into that kind of thing. (‘That Thing’ being steamed rice flour the consistency of a jello jiggler that is impossible to eat with any kind of dignity!)
If you want a smoothie I recommend the papaya or avocado, although the avocado isn’t as smooth and sweet as at other places (I believe it might be going out of season). There are many smoothies involving “Pennyworth” and I still have no idea what that is. (UPDATE: It is Rau Ma, a weed that is turned into a blended green drink here. It tastes too healthy for me, but Erin likes it!) The iced tea (tra da, which I’ve unexpectedly learned to love) is also cheap and refreshing.
I really can’t say that it’s just mediocre, although I should. The law of averages says that the best plus the worst should come out somewhere in the middle. Their offerings, besides traditional pancakes, have been almost uniformly unimpressive. But the fact that the giant Vietnamese pancakes shine so brightly outdoes any other criticism I might have – if you have a chance to stop and eat in District 3 of HCMC, stop here and get some banh xeo and Bánh Khọt!
Here’s the vegetarian Bánh Khọt – green beans (the small yellow ones, naturally) and green onions: