Dueling Dishes: Vietnamese Rolls
The Brodard family of restaurants are so well known for their pork rice rolls that it's practically become part of their name. "Oh, you should go to Brodard-and-you-have-to-get-the-nem-nướng-cuốn." It's suggested when you sit down, and the telltale plates with the little dishes of sauce are on most tables.
Well, talk is cheap, Brodard. Viễn Đông on Brookhurst makes a damn fine spring roll in the classical fashion. Is it nem nướng cuốn? No. But this week, Stick A Fork In It pits the finest pork loaf rolls against the archetypal spring rolls.
So what goes in these famed Brodard Château nem nướng cuốn anyway? Principally nem, which is pork paste that's served either as meatballs or as slices of a bright pink pork meatloaf. At Brodard Château, the nem is paired with lettuce, herbs, cucumbers, scallions and crackling slivers of fried wonton skin, then wrapped up in soaked rice paper. It's like a cross between a spring roll (fried and crackly) and a salad roll (soft and chewy).
These rolls are satisfying and succulent and it's very easy to see why they are so popular. The nem was juicy, the fried crispy bits lent the perfect textural contrast and the The problem is the accoutrements. Vietnamese cuisine is all about the table salad, the huge plate of herbs, lettuce, chiles, sprouts, etc. that allow you to customize the food to your own taste.
None of that showed up with our nem nướng cuốn. There was no table salad. There were just two dishes of a thick, sweet sauce, and the sauce was not particularly good. Someone in the kitchen must have realized that some diners like to dip in peanut sauce, some in duck sauce and some in fish sauce, because the sauce tasted like jam and peanut butter with some fish sauce and chiles mixed in. The cuon actually tasted better without the sauce, which is a real shame. A few herbs, a few lettuce leaves and some nước chấm and these would have been even better.
(Yes, we could have asked for it, but it seemed silly since an order is two rolls.)
Viễn Đông doesn't serve nem nướng cuốn. Viễn Đông's claim to roll fame are the ubiquitous chả giò, spring rolls stuffed with meat and noodles and vegetables, rolled up in rice paper, battered and deep-fried. An order costs $5.35 but gets you four large spring rolls, cut in half and served with a table salad so large that you could literally eat nothing but this dish and call it lunch.
The rolls themselves are a revelation: stuffed to the brim with seasoned filling that screams "pork". The shell is unbelievably crispy, even after sitting on the table for half an hour (not that the rolls will last that long without being eaten), with a crispy, air-pockety lightness that is impossible to eat quietly.
After you roll up one of Viễn Đông's chả giò with some tía tô (perilla leaves), kinh giới (Vietnamese balm leaves), spearmint and cilantro, throw a few rice noodles in for heft and dip in the standard nước chấm (fish sauce with water, lime juice, sugar, garlic and chiles--with thin slices of carrot and daikon radish floating on top), you'll never look at a New York-style Chinese egg roll, stuffed full of cabbage and tiny bits of roast pork, the same way again.
While Brodard Château's nem nướng cuốn are worthy (except for that bizarre marmalade they call dipping sauce), Viễn Đông's chả giò blow them out of the water. Viễn Đông has a great deal more to offer on their menu, as well, but that's a post for another time.
Brodard Château, 9100 Trask, Garden Grove; (714) 899-8273.
Viễn Đông, 14271 Brookhurst, Garden Grove; (714) 531-8253.
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