Socks get knocked
There is an art to softening the thin rounds of Vietnamese rice paper, or banh trang, in water. You have to leave each one a little bit stiff in order to transfer it to the plate without it folding over and sticking, and you have to trust that it will continue to soften on the plate once it’s transferred. You’ll get lots of practice at Bánh Xèo 46A: Most of the dishes on its short menu are meant to be wrapped in banh trang. Luckily, a server will bring a handy little gadget to your table for this purpose; rather than soaking the paper in a bowl of water as you would at other Vietnamese restaurants, here you spin the round in an upright tank.
Bánh Xèo is named for its signature dish, a Vietnamese egg crepe, and there will likely be at least one on every fellow diner’s table. Each one completely fills an oval-shaped platter and resembles an omelet. They are served stuffed with shell-on shrimp, onions and bean sprouts, and in the week before Thanksgiving, cubes of turkey—a cute touch. The banh xeo are shatteringly crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and wonderfully oily.
All of the dishes are also served with a mound of lettuce and mint—no cilantro or other herbs come with it. I wonder how I can possibly use all that lettuce and then observe that diners at other tables start their meals by tearing the lettuce and mint into a salad and then dressing it with sweet fish sauce. I follow suit and find it to be a refreshing appetizer.
Other appetizers include banh bot loc, or shrimp and pork dumplings. The unwrapping of the banana leaves that enclose them reveals bits of meat visible through greenish, gummy, semitransparent tapioca flour—it resembles a small alien placenta. A plate of fresh-out-of-the-fryer wings and drumettes tastes like KFC, and the sweet sauce served on the side would not be out of place there save for the deeply funky flavor of fish sauce. Perhaps the Colonel should look into it.
I order an appetizer of baby clams more out of reviewer duty than with any thought that it will be very good, and it turns out to be a sock-knocker-offer. Pinky-nail-sized clams are sautéed with chili oil, sesame seeds, black pepper, dried garlic and abundant rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander, which is somewhat similar to cilantro. All of this gets scooped onto a sesame chip, and it’s superior to even—gasp—Mexican nachos.
Even bún, a vermicelli-noodle dish usually served in a bowl, is presented here as a self-assembled wrap. Bánh Xèo also offers nem nuong, or grilled pork sausages on skewers, but its version can’t measure up to that of the nearby Quan Nem Ninh Hoa (6450 Stockton Boulevard), where this dish is a specialty. I especially miss the nem chua, the small, garlicky, fermented pork sausages that Quan Nemh serves.
The chao tom, a grilled shrimp dish, arrives as a flamingo-pink paste melded into a sausage shape around juicy sugarcane. In a taste-bud switcheroo, the grilled pork sausage tastes of shrimp and the grilled shrimp tastes a wee bit porky.
Depending on what you order, you may have three or four sauces brought to your table, not including the two chili pastes labeled “hot” and “extra hot.” The most unusual condiment here is a mixture of canned pineapple; ground, dried shrimp; and fish sauce. It is a perfect addition to the grilled shrimp wrap.
The staff is friendly—one server exclaimed “Aw, yeah!” when I ordered the turkey crepe, and a flat-screen TV emits a constant stream of saccharine Vietnamese love songs. One table near us, its party squeaking in near the restaurant’s closing time, said that they had traveled from Fresno. When their banh xeo arrived, they declared, “It’s huuuge!” I can’t speak to whether a drive from Fresno is warranted, but Bánh Xèo is certainly worth a trip to the intersection of Stockton Boulevard and Mack Road.
And the crepe is huge.