You won’t hear the sizzle, but you’ll definitely get the crunch when you eat bánh xèo at Nong Lá on La Brea Avenue.
This crispy Vietnamese crepe isn’t hard to find. It’s in Vietnamese restaurants all over Westminster, in the San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere. And it’s eaten throughout Vietnam, from north to south. But this is its first appearance in the La Brea restaurant corridor, introduced by Nong Lá Vietnamese Cafe on July 14 in a version you may not find elsewhere.
This bánh xèo is from the cooler Hanoi region. Instead of coconut milk, which would be used in the warmer south, the batter is made with beer — Budweiser, to be exact. The other ingredients are rice flour, cornstarch and turmeric, which tints the crepe yellow.
The sizzle (xèo) is the same — it’s what happens when cool batter hits a super-hot pan. And it takes place in the kitchen, so customers don’t hear it. The word bánh indicates a cake or bread product.
The crunch is the same, too, helped along by the beer. The crispiness doesn’t last long, though. Once cooked and folded, the crepe is rushed to the table and should be eaten within 10 minutes.
Inside are shrimp, squid, shiitake mushrooms, green onions and bean sprouts. The way to eat is to break off a portion, wrap it in lettuce and dip it in Nong Lá's sweet nuoc cham sauce, adding mint leaves and marinated carrots and daikon to taste. Nuoc cham is based on fish sauce, but the other ingredients are a family secret.
The recipe is from Khanh Phan, the mother of brother-and-sister restaurant owners Elaine and Victor Phuong. Phan is head chef and creates the recipes for all the dishes served at Nong Lá.
It’s a family operation, so Phan’s brother Raymond stepped in to show how bánh xèo is made. Coating a large round pan with a few drops of oil, he poured in a thin layer of batter, then added everything but the bean sprouts and covered the pan. When the crepe was set, he added the sprouts and sprinkled additional oil around the edges to produce the desired crispiness. The last step was to fold the crepe in half — tricky, because it was large and generously filled.
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For now, Nong Lá serves bánh xèo only on weekends, because it takes time to prepare. Orders must be placed at least 20 minutes in advance, so it’s not appropriate for a quick workday lunch.
Bánh xèo is available only at the La Brea location, not at the original Nong Lá on Sawtelle Boulevard, which has a smaller kitchen. It was introduced in order to diversify the menu, adding something new that Vietnamese food lovers haven’t been able to get in this part of town.
Nong Lá Vietnamese Cafe, 145 N. La Brea Ave., Mid-City; (323) 938-1188. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.