Over the last two decades, pho bo or beef noodle soup has become recognised as the national dish. It is also Vietnam’s best-known food export.
Yet the dish that has been tickling Vietnamese palates for well over 800 years — the time when it was first recorded in writing — is banh cuon or steamed rice paper rolls.
Typically sold on the street and made with the aid of a rice paper steamer covered with a thin cloth, the most famous version of banh cuon comes from Thanh Tri in Hanoi. Naturally, street vendors who’ve brought the dish down south have made changes. The filling is a mixture of minced pork and wood ear mushrooms; in Thanh Tri there is no filling. And the rolls are served with beansprouts, Vietnamese sausage (cha lua) and a sweet fish sauce mixed with water, garlic and a range of other flavourings.
So where can you get the best banh cuon in Saigon? I’ve been eating it from almost the day I stepped foot in Vietnam. However, after some research and a lot of rice paper rolls, here are my top three options for getting a dose of banh cuon.
You can get much, much cheaper on the street — between VND15,000 and VND25,000 a go. But when it comes to quality, taste and cleanliness, in these three joints you can’t really go wrong.
Banh Cuon Hai Nam
11 Cao Thang, Q3, HCMC
Price: VND36,000 to VND38,000 plus VND12,000 for cha
Add-ons: VND5,000 parking fee
Set up in one of the longest, skinniest rooms you’ve ever seen, the food here is served up on chrome metal tables while the fish sauce comes in a jar on the side — here you add sauce and chilli according to taste.
A plate of banh cuon comes with four pieces of rice cake, two pieces of cha on the side, which you pay extra for, deep fried shallots, shredded lettuce and bean sprouts.
Being Saigon, the fish sauce is sweet, but not overpoweringly so as it can be elsewhere. The rice cakes are perfectly made — not too thick and not too thin — while the savoury filling also hits the spot. Add chilli and the spice is strong. Very strong. Yet it’s still a tasty meal.
The only complaint? For a Western-sized stomach, one portion is not enough. You also have to pay extra for the cha.
Banh Cuon Nho
353 Le Van Sy, Q3, HCMC
Price: VND27,000 for the basic version rising to VND45,000 for the works with egg
Wooden tables and stools, a whitewashed bare brick wall, and a menu displayed in chalk on a blackboard at the back of the eatery give this lovely, fan-cooled joint a rustic, yet relaxing feel.
Set on Le Van Sy, halfway between District 1 and the airport, and despite often being in the media, prices are still reasonable. On my visit I go for the all-in banh cuon with egg. The portion size is large with two pieces of cha and one piece of nem chua. Already a winner. As is the sauce. Here the sugar levels are just the right amount to satisfy the palate of the Saigonese, but still pay homage to the dish’s Hanoian roots.
As for the rice cakes, eating them with egg reminds me a bit of eating that Malay-Indian hybrid bread roti telur, except that banh cuon is distinctly more healthy and there is no fried taste. There’s certainly no curry sauce on the side.
This is probably the most traditional banh cuon you can get in this city. It’s tasty, too.
Banh Cuon Tay Ho
127 Dinh Tien Hoang, Q1, HCMC
Price: The special or dac biet version costs VND48,000. Cha cost VND8,00
Add-ons: VND3,000 parking fee
Lime green walls with white tiling, chrome-topped tables and an air of bustle; the name suggests this joint should sell traditional, Hanoi-style banh cuon. Tay Ho is after all the biggest lake in the capital.
Being on the edge of District 1 and with a reputation massaged by the media, prices here aren’t cheap, but portion sizes are good. The special version of the dish really does give you a lot of banh cuon. Naturally the fish sauce is sweet, this is Saigon after all. But as sugar content goes, it’s about spot on.
But the real winner is the rice cake filling. This is not the standard minced pork and dried mushroom mix you find in this city. Instead, it’s a mix of chopped pork steak with bi, pork leg shavings. And damn does it taste good.
My only gripe? You’ve got to pay VND8,000 extra for the cha.