Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 3), we'll be bringing you periodic lists of some of the best things we've found to eat and drink around town. Ice cream sandwiches and bowls of tsukemen, fish tacos and dan dan mien, cups of boba and glasses of booze. Read on.
On your last pho excursion in the San Gabriel Valley, you may have noticed trays of tiny dishes with day-glo orange sprinkles. These little dishes have been called a variety of names: "That little noodle dish with the neon orange sprinkles on top," "mochi noodle dishes with dried shrimp," "little pancakes," "UFO noodles," "noodle shooters," "the Vietnamese cupcake," or simply, "rice cakes."
Translated from Vietnamese, banh beo is literally "water fern cake." Beo is pronounced "bay-oh" -- just like Scott Baio. These delicate steamed rice pancakes from the Hue region of central Vietnam, are mostly served individually in tiny sauce dishes. They're usually topped with a mix of crumbled dried shrimp, shredded pork, pork rinds, fried shallots and scallions. When gently scraped with a spoon or fork, they're meant to be slurped. These amuse-bouche-sized noodle shooters are the perfect summer food. Refreshing and savory, with a perfect douse of fish sauce umami, banh beo may replace the spring rolls to accompany your bowl of pho tai. It may even replace pho as your main course.
Most places in the San Gabriel Valley offer one or two styles of banh beo: banh beo bi and banh beo chen tom chay. You'll most likely find it listed in the appetizer section of the menu. At most restaurants that offer both, ask your server if you can split the order and have both toppings. However, if you are shellfish-intolerant, stick with banh beo bi.
Banh beo bi comes with a blend of matchstick-cut dried pork and pork rinds that have been coated with toasted rice powder, giving this pork mixture an almost jerky-like nuttiness. For those who are fans of "pork floss" -- dried shredded pork jerky served in many Chinese and Taiwanese dishes -- bi will definitely be a welcoming flavor and texture. Banh beo chen tom chay features the glittery, neon orange-colored crushed dried shrimp sprinkled on top of the noodle disk. As dazzling as it looks, it tastes even better. Along for the ride are scallions, fried shallots and sometimes even a piece of fried crouton or wonton skin.
Most banh beo served through Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley have good texture and flavor. Here are three restaurants that serve our favorite versions of the dish.
One of the best things about eating banh beo is the experience of slurping it right off the saucer. At Kim Hoa Hue, there is no saucer to slurp out of. All you need to do is enjoy the crunchy and soft bite right from your chopsticks or construct a makeshift saucer using a tablespoon. The pork rinds and fried scallions offer a chunky and savory consistency. Topped with a teaspoon of nuoc mam (fish sauce), the scallions and crushed shrimp also have a bright juiciness. An order of banh beo comes with twenty pieces and costs $4.50.
Kim Hoa Hue only serves banh beo chen tom chay, so for all the pork-lovers and shellfish-intolerant, try Kim Hoa Hue's other central Vietnamese specialties, which are equally amazing. 9813 Garvey Ave., El Monte; (626) 350-1382.
Across the street from Rosemead High School and the late tiki-inspired Bahooka, Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa is known for their signature grilled meatballs, nem nuong, which is one of the best versions of the dish in Los Angeles. Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa serves up a mighty banh beo chen tom chay. Flecked with a golden orange dust of crushed shrimp, scallions and fried croutons, the slurp of the rice noodle-cake with a bright spoonful of nuoc mam offers the perfect balance of soft and firm, creating a welcoming platform for the crunchy crouton. The chopped chili pepper that comes with the tray of banh beo adds a fiery floral punch that will have you preparing for your next spicy slurp.
One generous tray of banh beo comes with 12 pieces for $6.49. Paired with a soda chanh (lemonade soda) plus an order of Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa's meatballs, you'll leave planning your next visit. 9016 Mission Dr., Rosemead; (626) 286-3370.
Another establishment specializing on the revered Vietnamese grilled meatball nem nuong, Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa has also perfected the banh beo. Served directly right out of the steamers and onto your table, you can taste generous and intoxicating elements of savory, sweet, nutty, spicy and umami. The contrasting cool notes of nuoc mam, scallions and pork rinds to the cozy warmth of the noodle-cake and the heat of chili pepper -- plus the crisp of the fried wonton skin -- make it the ultimate slurp.
Offering both banh beo bi and banh beo chen tom chay, you can split the tray and get both toppings. Start with their sampler of nem nuong and in the middle of your meatball feast, a beautiful tray of bright orange splendor will arrive, like sunshine, only better. Nine mini-dishes of banh beo bi will cost $4.95, and an order of banh beo chen tom chay is $4.25. A tray of each will have your table looking like you've ordered every item off the menu. If you do, you'll begin to notice that everyone around you is doing exactly the same thing. 1700 W. Valley Blvd., Unit C, Alhambra; (626) 943-7845.
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