Not long after you exit Beltway 8 for Veterans Memorial Drive, the sign is there, letting you know you've left Houston city limits. What follows is an Oz-like cavalcade of wonders: a giant trompo turning on a spit, colorful Filipino baked goods, Indian-style hamburgers. And a Vietnamese restaurant that specializes in one of my favorite dishes, banh cuon.
Not that I'm an expert. I only became familiar with the rice rolls last year, when Houstonia freelance writer Mai Pham took me to lunch at Thien Thanh in Alief. But it was love at first bite: Now, when I see them on a menu (which is far more often than in other cities in the United States), I never fail to order them. So I can say with a modicum of authority that the banh cuon at Banh Cuon Hoa are worthy of the star billing they receive.
What's so special about them? Rice wrappers only slightly more opaque than a window pane are stuffed almost to bursting with pork (or shrimp, if you so choose). Other versions of what I call "Vietnamese manicotti" are often meagerly filled, thick, doughy rice noodles. The ones at BCH are topped in fried shallots and served with a salad of lettuce and blanched bean sprouts, and uncommonly delicious slices of pork roll. The nuoc cham (fish sauce) on the side is sweet, but not too sweet, a good vessel for the garlicky chile paste that waits on the table.
Pro tip: order the soda xi muoi to accompany the fishy allium funk of the main course. The drink is served in DIY style with a cup filled with just enough preserved plums to provide flavor when you pour in the can of soda water that comes with it. The result is a tangy, salty and slightly sweet sip that not surprisingly tastes like Japanese umeboshi (pickled plums) in soda form.
Then, order yourself another plate of banh cuon to go. Though the dish often isn't very filling, the version here is. You'll want more, but will lack the capacity. Time for a take-out container—or a return visit to Veterans Memorial Drive.