Bánh Xèo

It looked like a fortress made of frying pans. An old woman crouched at the smokey center, her arms a blur over the half dozen charcoal burners. She seemed to be cooking omelets - endless, endless omelets - for a voracious crowd. The smell was mind-bendingly delicious, like breakfast on a barbecue. We'd been passing this bánh xèo joint for weeks, and it was about time we got some take out. Bánh xèo literally means "sizzling cake," named for the sound it makes when it hits the pan. And despite appearances, it has nothing to do with eggs. The crepe is rice flour mixed with turmeric to give it a yellowish color. It's stuffed with scallions, pork or bacon, bean sprouts, and onions. Obviously, the recipe varies from shop to shop.

To eat, you take a chunk of the crepe, add some greens (generally cilantro, lettuce, perilla, green mango, and almost always mint), and wrap the whole thing in thin, dried rice paper, forming a kind of spring roll of awesomeness. You then dip it in a spicy fish or peanut sauce.

The combination is complex, a stupendous number of flavors all battling in your mouth... and somehow, they all win. It's fresh and bitey and hot, there's just a bit of crunch from the mango and bean sprouts, and the sauce gives everything a richness that elevates it above normal street food.

We also bought some nem lụi. It's spiced pork traditionally wrapped around lemongrass stalks and barbecued until charry and succulent. Ours were made on regular old sticks, but much of the flavor remained.

Nem lụi is a popular street food all over Việt Nam, but it originates in Huế, up near Đà Nẵng. The skewers are cheap and tasty, though they don't necessarily come with bánh xèo. We were just lucky enough to find a shop that sold both.

Bánh xèo takeout was fantastic, but our first time actually eating in the little restaurant was even better. The place looked like the aftermath of a tornado, littered with lettuce, forgotten chili peppers, and wadded up napkins. There was a trashcan at each table but it was pointedly, laughably ignored. As a result, the floor was actively slippery - waitstaff glided by like figure-skaters. This was a Hà Nội style restaurant, where tradition said to dump your garbage right on the ground.

I, a silly tourist from the hypoallergenic US, found all this deeply unsettling. Until the food arrived, the smell hit me, and everything else was forgotten.


PS: The Food Network has a recipe if you want to try bánh xèo but don't live within convenient walking distance of an appropriate restaurant.

And the Cooking Channel has a recipe for Nem lụi. That one might be a little harder, given the ingredients list. But a good Asian grocery will probably do the trick.