If you love banh cuon, you probably already know about Thien Thanh in Chinatown, across Bellaire Boulevard from Hong Kong City Mall. There are only half a dozen or so banh cuon restaurants in Houston, and Thien Thanh is the top of the heap. I usually get the Anglo favorite, banh cuon thit nuong, which is made with barbecued pork.
Banh cuon is essentially a rice flour crepe, made by pouring batter on a piece of canvas stretched over a pot of boiling water and spreading it with one of those French crepe squeegees. If you dry the crepe, you have the rice paper used in Vietnamese spring rolls. Banh cuon is what it's called when eaten fresh. The fresh crepes are either rolled up around a filling to make noodle rolls, which are cut into bite-size pieces, or the sheets are cut into a pile of loose noodles and topped with various meats.
But the real key to banh cuon is the dipping sauce—and you have to make your own. On the table you will find the familiar jar of red pepper paste, a cruet of strong fish sauce, and a big jug of nuoc cham, the Vietnamese mixture of fish sauce, lime juice and sugar that is the base of all kinds of dipping sauces. Your ideal dipping sauce will contain just the right proportions of each. (I like mine with a whole lot of chile paste.)
North Vietnamese banh cuon fanatics carry their own little bottles of ca cuong, a fragrant extract made from mang da water beetles. Some consider it the ultimate banh cuon condiment.
Thien Thanh, 11210 Bellaire Blvd., 281-564-0419