FOOD: Breakfast of Champions, Vietnamese-Style
BY JIMMY SCARANO
Falls Church Times Staff
January 15, 2010
For whatever reason, I find it hard to wrap my head around eating anything other than American food for breakfast. At any other time of day I’m as adventurous as they come. In fact, I go out of my way to eat un-American dishes at lunch and dinner because I love ethnic food so much. But come morning all I want is cereal or pancakes or eggs with hash browns.
Breakfast is without question my strongest culinary connection to my home country.
This morning is different. Instead of cracking an egg or clanking around in the kitchen for my cereal bowl and spoon, I’m sitting in traffic on my way to the Eden Center. My curiosity has got the best of me and I want to see what it’s like to start my day in a decidedly Vietnamese way.
My destination is Banh Cuon Saigon, a mom and pop joint in the deep corridors of Saigon West mall that specializes in banh cuon. A northern Vietnamese delicacy, banh cuon has spread throughout Vietnam as a favorite breakfast item and now has many forms. The basic preparation involves thin sheets of a steamed rice flour-based batter, which are rolled around a finely minced filling (usually pork or shrimp), topped with fried shallots, cilantro, and bean sprouts, and eaten with ungodly amounts of the fish sauce dip called nuoc cham. Sometimes the rolls are accompanied by cha lua, a baloney-esque Vietnamese sausage.
I always pick up the cannelloni-shaped treasures at delis in Eden, but I’ve never had some freshly made by an expert. And I’ve never eaten them at 9 a.m. Even though the anticipation is killing me, I’m getting close to Eden and my body still wants cereal or pancakes. I’m beginning to think this isn’t such a good idea.
When I finally pull into Eden the parking lot is blissfully barren. I take this as a sign. The time is right for my first Vietnamese breakfast. I walk to the end of Saigon West mall, stopping outside the last restaurant on the right, which is simply called “Saigon.” But I know its Banh Cuon Saigon because the menu has banh cuon all over the specials section and there are pictures of banh cuon on the windows. There are already two tables filled—a good sign.
I seat myself and peruse the menu briefly to see which kind of banh cuon I want. I can’t stomach the idea of ground shrimp or onion versions so early, so I opt for ground pork. It will be my bacon for the morning. The $7.50 price tag seems a bit steep, but when I see an order fly out of the kitchen while I’m waiting for mine I’m put at ease. The portion is quite generous.
While I wait I worry. How am I going to stomach this? What will my body think of me when I pour fish sauce down it first thing in the morning?
I distract myself by playing with the hermetically sealed jar of nuoc cham on my table. Each table in the restaurant has huge jars filled with the orange-tinged dip (the color is a result of pounding red chilies and garlic with sugar, and thus releasing their oils, before adding them to fish sauce, water, and lime juice), which diners ladle out into little saucers themselves. I slosh it around, distributing the garlic and other sediments that have sunk to the bottom. The smell is fishy but sweet. It is most certainly not a morning breakfast aroma.
My order of banh cuon arrives in a few minutes and just like that my worries melt away. I’m hungry and I’m going to eat. I don’t care what is in front of me.
The only problem I see on the plate is a few slices of those pesky Vietnamese sausages, which I take one bite of and push aside. I will never acquire a taste for rubbery pressed meats. But the rest of the dish looks promising. In addition to the typical bean sprouts, fried shallots, and cilantro, I see Thai basil, my all time favorite herb. The rolls themselves are translucent and slippery-looking.
One bite and I’m convinced—these are easily the best banh cuon I’ve had. Freshly cooked and just the right thickness, they have that perfect supple-tender-chewy texture that so many Vietnamese rice-based delicacies share. Each bite I add more and more nuoc cham, which I’ve spiked with both the chili sauce and jalapenos on the table. The lightly-seasoned crepes benefit from the pungent dip.
I see an elderly Vietnamese woman digging into her banh cuon with chopsticks, but I resort to using my spoon, which is able to hold a pool of nuoc cham at the bottom and makes for perfect bites.
I finish and pay, laughing at myself on the way out for making such a big fuss all morning about eating Vietnamese food for breakfast.
In the end it was nothing. Good food is good food, regardless of when it’s eaten. The banh cuon were a great start to my day, the only drawback being the fried shallot breath I suffered from afterwards, which was quickly remedied with some minty gum.
Now that I’ve broken the ice I’ve got a feeling I’ll be spending more and more mornings out of my element. Eating an ethnic breakfast is really no different from eating an ethnic lunch or dinner. You just have to get over that road block in your head that says you are supposed to eat a bagel with orange juice, or a grapefruit with a coffee, or two bowls of Special K, or whatever it is you normally eat. And, as is often the case, a great place to start in the City of Falls Church to broaden your edible horizons is at the Eden Center.
Banh Cuon Saigon, 6795 Wilson Blvd, Ste 54, Falls Church, VA, 22044. 703-534-4482.
By Jimmy Scarano
January 15, 2010