Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, A Taste of Vietnamese Crepes

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

FYI. The "46A" in the restaurant name refers to the address. Pho restaurants like Pho 54, Pho 79 and Pho 87, contrary to belief, do not indicate the years in which the families emigrated from Vietnam – they are the addresses of their business back in Vietnam. But Pho 69, that could be an entirely different story.

Rewind to the previous day, before the monstrous breakfast I had. When Jeni and I arrived in Saigon, we had already printed out a list of things/places we wanted to eat. Even though there was Vietnam's review site, cleverly named Yup! we were good to go. Three pages of paragraphs detailing exact locations of restaurants or stalls. With the help of our friend MN, we pretty much had a scavenger hunt map in our hands. No photos, but only descriptions that would take us through tight alleys and hair-raising traffic to places we would never have dreamt of finding.

Another bit of inspiration is always Anthony Bourdain. In Season 5, Episode 10, he travels back to Vietnam but with the intention of moving to a country that always wins his heart. For me, this is was one of my Top 5 Bourdain episodes. No bullshit sight-seeing or foreplay, it was pure eating. And that's why we all continue to love this man - just give him the food or he'll get mad. So of course, we wanted to try Banh Xeo 46A, the first place he ate at on the episode. The sight of the cook swirling the batter around in that frying pan immediately got me hot & bothered.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Bourdain's Chomp of Approval

It was 3 pm now. Tired and hungry, we decided to hire two cyclo drivers to take us around. What is a cyclo? If a tricycle and a wheelchair had sex, it would give birth to a cyclo. After the fall of Saigon, anyone that possessed a profession involving intellect was sent to an institution for re-education. The people that were once doctors, lawyers and scholars, sadly started back at square one. According to anonymous-in-law, many resorted to careers of servitude such is the life of a cyclo driver. So we were up for supporting these Centaurs of transportation. They seemed nice and even brought out their guest books filled with testimonials from foreigners.

Cyclo Guys: "Where you guys wanna go?"
Us: "You know Banh Xeo 46A?"

Cyclo Guys: "Yeah! Yeah! You like banh xeo?"

Us: "F-yeah."

Cyclo Guys: "Uh. Okay!"
He smiled at me as I turned away. Under his breath, I could hear him curse in Vietnamese. I would soon find out that the restaurant was like a 45-minute ride away. Oops hahaha!

We hopped in to the cyclo and embarked. I've already seen Saigon traffic from INSIDE a car, with doors and windows to guard my flesh and bone. But now, we were up for the true Saigon street experience FULLY EXPOSED. Here we were in a 3-wheeled rickshaw at the mercy of a skinny guy wearing nothing but slippers for traction on the pedals. He was already unhappy about having to go to another district. Buses, cars and scooters had to swerve past us because we were slowing down traffic. At one point, Mr. Cyclo ran the red light and busted a slow left turn. The opposing traffic was heading towards us at full speed and everybody slowed down for us. I could actually see the pupils of the bus driver. No scratch that, I could see the long nosehairs of the bus driver! All the while, Mr. Cyclo was puffing on his cigarette not giving a damn, going about his day. At 5 mph.

I looked over at the cyclo Jeni was in and we both just shook our heads and laughed. Somehow, after 45 of mins of peddling, the Cyclo Guys got us to our destination. Alive. They smiled, enough to cover up their exhaustion, and told us that they would be waiting for us.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I had watched the Bourdain episode enough to take one look at this place and say "Okay, Bourdain sat right... over... there." Stalker, I know. We didn't sit in the same spot. We parked ourselves on tiny tables and stools and a waiter handed us some menus.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

The setup here at Banh Xeo 46A was really simple and very accommodating for the cook. The cook sat on a wooden stool and around her, she set up her command center. She had stacks of plates on the left. The open fire was directly in front of her, along with the food. And on her right, the banh xeo batter in a large pail. Everything was on the ground and as I've learned, this is probably where the Southeast Asian crouch comes in super handy. Why stand and beat up your feet when you can simply crouch, recline backwards and have the weight of your arms balance you without tipping over. It was good on the legs and you could do anything you want in this position: eat, drink, talk, spit, cuss, cook, play cards, anything! I one saw this gangster in Alhambra crouching and smoking on top of a U.S. mailbox in the middle of the day. He looked like a vulture perching 4 feet above the ground. I expected him to suddenly grow wings and fly away into gangster heaven. I never understood why he did that. Anyway, back to the command center. Everything was within arms reach and very convenient for the cook.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I noticed that a lot of stalls used natural fire to heat/cook their food. A dish like banh xeo did not need the 'breath of a wok' so this would work perfectly. This is a slow-cooked dish that has to be done right. Next to the fire was this pail of what I thought looked like Edward Cinema's finest butter. It was probably a really rich stock or some sort of rendered fat, but whatever it was, it was going to make the banh xeo taste real good. I parked it right next to the cook and asked if I can shoot her while she made the banh xeo. She was more than happy to cook for the eye.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Birth of a Banh Xeo Part I
First, she adds some oil and adds a few onions and already cooked pork and shrimp. After a light sauté, she then takes a scoop of her banh xeo batter which consists of rice flour, coconut milk, turmeric powder, water and salt, and adds it to the pan. The coconut milk is key because it gives a nice sweetness and takes away the oily taste of the crepe. She then swirls the pan like an omelette so that the batter is spread throughout the pan in an even form.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Birth of a Banh Xeo Part II
Next, bean sprouts are added and a small lid is placed directly on the bean sprouts for some sauna action. Once the bean sprouts are slightly tender, a scrambled egg mixture is poured over the crepe along with a scoop of that rich stock for extra flavor. A few minutes later, she begins to pry the edges slowly to see that the crepe is browning. And finally when its ready, she takes the banh xeo and carefully folds it in half with the spatula. I remember this folding process vividly from the Bourdain episode. A perfectly cooked banh xeo if you ask me.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Here, banh xeo boy is preparing some veggies for us. A few years back, Jeni and I were in Little Saigon and ordered one. I had never had it and was tired of eating spring rolls and egg rolls. This dish came just as she went to the restroom. This thing was massive – it reminded me of the taco from SNL's "Taco Town" skit. I was so hungry that I just started eating it straight up. Dipping it in fish sauce and gobbling it. About five minutes into it, I was starting to get full and very sick. It was so oily. Never again I thought to myself. Jeni came back and was like "how do you like it?" "It's good but I'm feeling sick." "What? Is it undercooked?" "I don't know, it's just kinda too oily." She looked at the plate of untouched greens and herbs and put her head in her hands. I learned that day that banh xeo tastes much better with herbs and greens, not straight up haha.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

As the cook finished up the order, I went back to my seat. Washed my hands with those handi-wipe napkins and prepared for the long-awaited crispy snack. Or so I thought? It had only been two minutes and already, the banh xeo was starting to get moist and soggy. Sure the edges were crispy but the crepe was actually close to falling apart. I quickly took a small chunk and wrapped it up with the necessary fixings, dipped it in the fish sauce dip and took a bite. Hmm. The crunch is slightly there but now there's another problem. The filling was a bit under-seasoned. I double dipped again in the fish sauce and even then, it was only okay. It became better when I opened the crepe up like the hood of a car and threw in some salt/fish sauce.

I love Anthony Bourdain's show but I knew right then that a bit of entertainment magic was thrown in for well, entertainment. I was hooked on going to Banh Xeo 46A after hearing the crunch of the banh xeo. For sure, sound effects were added for maximum crunch or maybe Bourdain got it 30 seconds faster than I did. Whatever the case, ours wasn't Kettle Chip crispy. Pretty funny when I think about it.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I wasn't bummed at all. After all, I was eating in Vietnam which was amazing enough. I knew that if it weren't for Bourdain's visit, this would still do well because its a local favorite. At 90,000 dong, it's on the higher end of the cash spectrum. I'm sure there's way better places out in Saigon. I had a total of 5 days in Vietnam so I had plenty of time to eat great food. Again, this trip wasn't about scouring the streets for the best of the best. For me, it was just about experience. Again, I didn't care, we had a great time!

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

We said bye to everyone and thanked them for letting us take photos. Our cyclo guys were there still and we jumped back in for another wild ride back to District 1. In a few hours, we would be going after another one of Bourdain's pit stops... the bun bo hue Lunch Lady.

To be continued. Thanks for reading.

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Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Finally Meet You and Eat You


Bill said...

That was awesome and funny. I wonder if there is a stall 69 now I might have to go back and check it out eventually ;-). I was never a banh xeo guy I guess my mom made it so much it that it was overwhelming or maybe it wasn't crunchy enough or maybe it was the oil, but one thing for sure the fish sauce better be the bomb and don't forget the greens, a must.

weezermonkey said...

Five stars for Taco Town reference.

My brother and Aziz went to Tokyo and Australia over the holidays, and they, too, visited a number of Bourdain-approved eateries. Like me, I think you and J would be jealous.

allison said...

Beautiful pictures and great storytelling as always! My Vietnamese friend's family restaurant makes some pretty mouthwatering crepes like this and I can only imagine what the ones you ate must have tasted like..

Michelle said...

I ate here too! And then saw Anthony eat there too which was very cool. But I'm with you on this one, it wasn't the best Banh Xeo I've had but eating in Vietnam itself is always a pleasure

boody said...

My friend stood behind Anthony Bourdain at La Guardia Airport yesterday! She said they made eye contact. She may be in love. haha. Your pics look awesome, man. I just tried banh xeo at Brodard for the first time. I ate all the crispy edges. SO GOOD!!!

e d b m said...

Bill, there's definitely a Pho 69 out there, probably run by some hardworking Vietnamese adults with a teenage son that convinced them would actually attract customers. Banh Xeo is something I don't eat very often and I think only went there because I heard the crunchy sound effect when Bourdain ate there. So I had to try it. You can find something equally better here in the U.S.

WeezerMonkey, I miss Taco Town! The "101 Chowdown Countdown" on the Travel Channel seriously has some food that looks worse than the actual Taco Town taco. Alan/Aziz's trip sounds great. Did they post photos anywhere?

Allison, thank you. How is the Vietnamese food scene in the Pacific NW?

Michelle, awesome! Talk about impeccable timing. How long were they shooting there? And yes, just being in Vietnam was awesome. you could have fed me mud, lettuce and fish sauce and i'd tell you it's the best mud-lettuce-fish sauce experience ever.

Boody, nice! Brodard is a nice place for the pork rolls. I used to feed off that in college. I hope you had a tasty visit to LA this time. We'll definitely meet up with you next time.

Matt said...


Any chance you'd be willing to share that 3-page treasure map? I'm going to Saigon and Hanoi in three weeks and would be greatful for the head-start

e d b m said...

Matt, email me at . be more than glad to suggest a few places to try. i'm sure they aren't the best but like i s.aid, you're going to find good food EVERYWHERE in Vietnam

weezermonkey said...

Both of them tweeted some photos during and immediately after the trip, as did their friend James (@lcdsoundsystem).

Yes, that LCD Soundsystem.

My mom and I looked at my brother's 600ish photos. I marveled at everything from underground nameless sushi places to chicken sashimi to partying with Samantha Ronson and Natalie Imbruglia.

My mom told my brother his computer screen was dirty.

Ravenous Couple said...

The cyclo guys are the hardest working and poorest and i'm sure you guys made their week despite it being a 45 ride! the scrambled egg is something new to us! it looks like the batter is completely white in that photo..was the tumeric added later in the second photo?

e d b m said...

RavenousCouple, for sure those guys work hard. I felt bad that they had to wheelbarrow my heavy ass. for the banh xeo, the batter was completely white but they did add a ladel of this yellowish broth which probably contains the turmeric. The egg was a nice addition b/c i like eggs but didn't really taste it in the already-crispy batter.

Anonymous said...

I love it ! this look so delicious. I love your blog the photography is so beautiful. the ban xeo looks perfectly crisp and warm, plus i've never seen the scrambleed egg mixture. Being a Vietnamese cook these pictures make me want to go back to vietnam just for the Ban Xeo. Keep blogging !

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