Banh Cuon Hong Mai

Photo by Sarah CallenderSquare foot for square foot, the Bánh Cuôn Hông Mai chain may be Orange County's most bountiful food operation, two near-closets in Santa Ana and Garden Grove that offer 150 entrées each. Like rice? Try 27 versions of the Saigon street standard com dum, fragrant jasmine rice shards paired with various delectable meats. Thirsty? Sip from 27 different beverages, everything from coma-eradicating Vietnamese coffee to American sodas to an icy lychee drink loaded with the citric, pale, wonderful fruit. Hungry for bún, the vermicelli salad whose light-yet-filling essence is waiting for its imminent anointment as hipster Orange County's meal-of-the moment? There are 27 types of bún prepared here: vegetarians partake of the bún cha giò (crunchy egg rolls atop a network of chilled vermicelli noodles), while more adventurous souls chopstick their way through a slimy escargot bún.

The fecundity of 27s at Hông Mai is a mystery. While many Vietnamese entrepreneurs base their businesses around lucky numbers, 27 does not appear to hold any significance in Vietnamese culture. In fact, the only culture I know of that considers 27 sacred is Islam—and that's limited to Lailat Al Qadr, the 27th night of Ramadan. But Hông Mai's ultimate specialty isn't numerology, but rather the studious preparation of its namesake, the rice roll delicacy known as bánh cuôn.

Preparing bánh cuôn is akin to a silkworm spinning its cocoon: thin rice paper wrapped around a stuffing over and over until the once-transparent sheets transform into a pallid, lumpy, steamed length. Each order of bánh cuôn includes five of the rice rolls chopped in half. They look like albino enchiladas—not the most appetizing of appearances, really.

But chomping into a bánh cuôn is another matter. They're silky, light, furtively filling, a good sponge for the accompanying fish sauce. The rice paper itself is a bit bland, but that neutral flavor somehow amplifies a bánh cuôn's innards tenfold. The charbroiled ground beef inside the bánh cuôn bò nuong, for instance, is fine to the point of inhalation but nevertheless retains a gritty, bovine funk reminiscent of the best barbecues. Other ingredients are similarly grandiose—lemongrass-infused beef sausages, cold pâtés that best the best Italian bolognas, and a weird fungus known as tree ears that looks like plucked nostril hairs but tastes like organic licorice. You can savor all of these lovelies with the county's best $5 house special, the bánh cuôn dac biet: five separate bánh cuôns, two unadorned sheets of rice paper sprinkled with charbroiled onions, a roll of bánh cong (a light, deep-fried green bean cake), assorted pâtés, and an adjoining salad of bean sprouts and mint.

Total number of bánh cuôns at Hông Mai: 38. Once again, 38 has no known significance in Vietnam, but what do you care? If you're looking to divine meaning from digits, busy yourself with pi and leave the dining to us famished non-conspiracists.

Bánh Cuôn Hông Mai, 10912 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 534-4526; 5425 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 554-9190.


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