Thanh Xuan Cafe is easy to miss. It doesn’t look like much from the outside (or from the inside for that matter). It is set between a Vietnamese nail salon and a massage parlour in an old strip mall on the corner Kingsway and Nanaimo. I believe it is the only restaurant in town that specializes in banh cuon.
Banh cuon (bánh cu?n – pronounced “bun koo-in”) is a steamed rice flour crepe, a common breakfast dish from Northern Vietnam. It is filled sparingly with ground pork and slivered wood ear mushrooms, and traditionally served with fish-sauce based nuoc cham dip, sliced Vietnamese pork roll (cha lua), crisp fried shallots, and a simple lettuce and herb salad. In Vietnam, you will find premium renditions of banh cuon flavoured with the extract of a water insect called ca cuong, but I have yet to find that version in Vancouver.
Like many Vietnamese dishes, banh cuon originated from southern China, specifically the regions of Yunnan and Guangxi that share borders with North Vietnam. It is a local version of the more familiar “cheong fun”, the Chinese steamed rice roll you will find on all dim sum menus.
The banh cuon crepe is cooked on interesting cloth-topped, drum-shaped steamers. They rigged up their own at Thanh Xuan by stretching fine mesh cotton-nylon fabric with a steel hose clamp over two large noodle pots. A hole punctured near the edge of the cloth allows some steam emit up into the domed lids to cook the top of the crepe.
Banh cuon starts as a thin batter made with rice starch which is then left to ferment overnight until it is slightly tangy and bubbly. The cook pours and spreads this batter thinly on the steamer’s cloth surface then covers it with the lid. After a minute, she lifts the now translucent crepe with a bamboo wand deftly onto an oiled tray where she then fills it with the ground pork, shrimp, and wood ear mushroom mixture.
Six crepes makes an order and she runs the two pots simultaneously to make quick work of it. It is harder than it looks as it requires skill and experience to be able to handle such a diaphanous crepe without tearing or making a mess of it.
The banh cuon is such a light meal that I usually order it with a bun rieu (pronounce “bone roo”), a soup made with crab stock and served with a cake-like crab loaf.
I’m always on the look-out for these little shops that specialize in one amazing thing, and this is one of my all-time favourite finds. If you have any tips or secret under-the-radar places like Thanh Xuan Cafe, please let me me know as I would love to check it out!
Thanh Xuan Cafe | 2261 Kingsway | Vancouver, BC | 604-439-9696 | NO WEBSITE