Some meals defy translation, and among these is banh cuon, a Vietnamese meal that's little more than stuffed, steamed layers of rice-flour sheets—the quesadilla meets the pancake. It's not the prettiest of dishes, and even the most experienced chopstick users will find the banh cuon slipping and splattering onto their plates.
Banh cuon is a Vietnamese obsession, and probably the most popular Vietnamese entrée that hasn't followed pho into the mainstream American diet. Just check the crowds at BANH CUON TAY HO 2, a tiny diner in the shadows of Little Saigon's Asian Garden Mall. No reservations accepted—to get a table, sign your name on the clipboard outside the restaurant and then wait. But it's not for long, thankfully: people go in, scarf down their food, and get the hell out. Do anything here but eat (talk with the help, pause thoughtfully with chopsticks poised over plate, pause between bites) and expectant diners will kill you a thousand times with their eyes.
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Banh Cuon Tay Ho 2 (número uno is in San Gabriel) sells eight types of the dish, but you can enjoy almost all of them by ordering the mammoth banh cuon dac biet Tay Ho. The meal contains various elements of other banh cuons. One is earthy ground pork and mushroom stuffed into the rice-flour layers. Another is fluffy, fried shrimp cake studded with green beans placed on the side. Still another comprises slices of cold pork with the texture of bologna but more sour. My favorite part of the banh cuon dac biet Tay Ho is the golden-brown snack that looks something like Carl's Jr.'s criss-cut fries. This deep-fried marriage of shrimp and yam yields one of the best appetizers in Orange County. Don't forget to add nuoc mam, the fermented fish sauce you'll find in carafes on each table.
Banh Cuon Tay Ho offers other meals—large bowls of the vermicelli salad bún, as well as soup and rice dishes. But if you take only one thing from this review, take this: when visiting a Vietnamese restaurant with a particular dish in its name, order that dish—the restaurant owners named their business after a meal for a reason.
And one more thing: the banh cuon dac biet Tay Ho feeds four for just $5.10—a feat even Jesus (with his loaves and fishes) would admire.
BANH CUON TAY HO 2, 9242 BOLSA AVE., #F, WESTMINSTER, (714) 895-4796.