We’re familiar with pho, Vietnam’s best-known culinary export. Some of us are even familiar with bun bo hue, a spicier version of beef noodle soup from central Vietnam. Now, I would like to introduce banh xeo, a crepe filled with sizzling pork and shrimp that everyone ought to get to know better.
Pronounced “boon say-o,” banh xeo consists of a rice-flour crepe seasoned with turmeric and filled with bits of pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. It’s a popular South Vietnam street food that’s served with piles of lettuce leaves and fresh herbs.
To eat it, you tear off pieces of the crepe and wrap it inside a leaf of lettuce, rip up a few herbs and drop them inside, then roll it all up and dip it into some nuoc cham. It’s fresh, light and delicious.
Pho has transcended the Vietnamese community and is now enjoyed by non-Vietnamese, some of whom have even learned to pronounce it correctly (“fuh”). I nominate banh xeo as the next Vietnamese dish to go mainstream. Banh Xeo is fun to eat, cool to look at, pretty healthy and delicious to boot.
Banh xeo is widely available at Silicon Valley Vietnamese restaurants, but my favorite place is the Banh Xeo Dinh Cong Trang food stall at San Jose’s Grand Century Mall. Each stall in the food court specializes in one Vietnamese specialty, and the crowds in front of this place always seem to be the biggest.
Order at the counter and grab a seat at one of the tables. The diners here are mainly Vietnamese, but there are a few in-the-know non-Vietnamese, too. In addition to all the Vietnamese restaurants, there are clothing stores, jewelry stores, music stores and other businesses that cater to San Jose’s Vietnamese community. This is as close as you can get to Vietnam without boarding a plane to Ho Chi Minh City.
The lady who calls out the orders for food does so in Vietnamese, so it’s best to maintain eye contact with her to see that you get your order right off the griddle.
Banh xeo takes its name from the sizzling “ssssay-o” that the batter makes when it hits the griddle. If you’re impatient like me you can just stand in front of the counter and wait for your order to come up, listening for the telltale sound of the batter contacting hot metal.
The bright yellow crepe arrives lacy and crunchy along the edges and steamy hot inside. Combined with the pork and shrimp, this is a pretty rich dish, but wrapping it up with the lettuce and herbs and dunking it in the rice vinegar and fish sauce–based sauce helps lighten things up.
Turmeric is supposed to be a digestive aid, too, so you’ll leave feeling like you ate something good for you. Keep an eye out for the pickled lettuce hearts set out on the counter. They are a free condiment the restaurant offers that make good use of the inner part of lettuce left over after the leaves are stripped away. Judging from the other diners around me, the lettuce pickles are the standard accompaniment.
Like something to drink? The fresh-squeezed juice from the sugar-cane-juice stall next door is the perfect beverage to pair with your banh xeo.
Banh xeo is the specialty of the house, but the cha gio ($7.50) is also worth checking out. Thumb-size, fried rice-paper rolls of seasoned ground pork are served alongside the same stack of lettuce leaves and herbs as well as pickled carrots and cucumber and a pile of cold rice noodles. The procedure is the same. Roll it up and enjoy a mouthful of Vietnam.