Loan’s open storefront at the corner of District 1’s Hai Ba Trung and Ly Tu Trang Streets makes for some happy eating as I methodically work my way through the menu. I dragged my buddy Eloy over there for a late lunch recently and as usual the enticing menu made selection difficult. Our neighbor only a few feet away sitting barefoot and indian style hovered protectively over her mound of fresh herbs, rice vermicelli and beef. She was rolling all this up and stuffing her face like there was no tomorrow. Ôi chúa ơi! Has a famine started over here I have yet to read about?
Crazy manners aside, we tried to ask our waitress where this food was hidden away on the menu. Rather than pinpointing a specific dish, she pointed to the entire beef section of the menu. Yes, I do see the woman with noodles hanging down her chin is indeed eating a beef product but which one? I pointed again to the table and then to the menu and once again just got a sign language wave over the entire beef section. Look, lady, I know I don’t see a smorgasbord on that table so just give me one dish from the menu. Oh well, I guess this just isn’t going to happen. Vietnam can be frustrating like this for sure. You ask for “same same” and something totally different appears.
Now left to our own devices, some fried spring rolls on the menu grabbed our attention, and I thought back to living in Hanoi and how common these chả giò are. Hell, how often have you eaten one with your Chinese takeaway and never thought twice about it? They’re everywhere. We ordered and much to my delight and surprise almost the same item being literally burped down by our neighbor arrived. I like any restaurant where the patrons can belch to their heart’s content. The heap of fresh herbs and noodles we had wanted filled a plate garnished with tomatoes and cucumber slices, albeit with fried chả giò as the centerpiece rather than meat . OK, in the land of “same, same but different” this is close enough…I can deal with it.
Now I have no idea why a plate of rice noodles, lettuce and herbs such as perilla and coriander arrived with these gut bombs only an oily transfat bath could spawn. All I know is I’ve never seen these rabbit food greens in Hanoi and I know this tiny street joint surely isn’t elevating the lowly spring roll into some sort of New Vietnamese Cuisine creation. Were I in possession of a vocabulary beyond the words for Merry Christmas and counting to three, I would have asked our neighbor what to do with the towering mound of accompaniments. I actually thought about texting Anthony for some guidance but in the end bumbling our way through this one proved more fun.
However, I did think back to the pancakes and how Anthony had expertly rolled up all that crap into those tight lettuce joints. See…some good old fashioned learning by osmosis has occurred on this food trip, and rolling these green weeds seemed appropriate. I wrapped a golden brown roll with some perilla, lettuce and vermicelli, dipped it in the sweet-spicy nước chấm (remember this sauce from our visit with Phu Quoc Island’s fried rice?) and enjoyed the crunch of the fried rice paper, the softness of the slightly spiced meat and vegetable filling, and the bitterness of the herbs. Sweet, sour, salt and spice all in one greasy bite…yes…perfection.
This may be common street food at a typical restaurant for our Vietnamese friends, but for an American and a Spaniard, these super fresh spring rolls were anything but. Some fresh herbs, a handful of sticky noodles, and a little tasty fish sauce elevated the Saigon version so far above the bland, previously frozen craprolls served up with bright red high fructose corn syrup sauce on the #5 combination plate back home. You know you’ve struck gold at a restaurant when a super common dish manages to send you away on a blissful food journey even if just for a few bites.