You're one of two kinds of bánh xèo eater. Are you the kind that takes a whole leaf of lettuce to wrap a shard or two of the crispy Vietnamese crepe and its fillings, rolling it up with herbs to make a makeshift burrito? Or do you just put it all into a bowl and eat it with chopsticks? In Little Saigon, you'll find the wrap-and-rollers are in the majority, but there's really no rule on how one should attack a bánh xèo except to enjoy it while it's still fresh, at the optimum point of crunchiness, sizzling from the pan. You'd be a fool to not scarf the whole thing down on the spot, leaving no leftovers, preferably in a dining room in which you see almost nothing but bánh xèo being ordered.
This distant cousin of a French crepe is named after the hissing sound the rice-flour-coconut-milk-and-turmeric-colored batter makes when it hits the hot oiled pan and is swirled to coat the surface. Whereas its Gallic counterpart is floppy and tender, the best Vietnamese bánh xèo is enduringly crunchy and lacy, especially the edges. The oil renders the pancake rigid and golden brown. It's then that these unearthly discs are carefully folded into a clamshell, with a stir-fry of bean sprouts, scraps of pork, curls of shrimp and wilted onion inside. Now resembling an overstuffed omelet, it's rushed out to the dining room, served with a sweet-and-sour fish sauce for dipping and an Amazon of herbs.
The longtime bánh xèo king in Orange County is Van's Restaurant, which Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano reviewed last summer. But there's a new challenger to the crown. Thanh Ha is barely a third the size of Van's and is so new the nice chairs and sleek tables are still unscuffed and gleaming, but its bánh xèo is twice as big as you'll see anywhere else. It utilizes the largest wok possible instead of a regular pan to form its crepes, a method favored by Saigon bánh xèo aficionados. The result is a thinner, even more delicate object with the wingspan of a small Cessna and so sheer you can see through it. Although Thanh Ha's bánh xèo may be more crisp than crunchy, the pork is leaner than what others use, and the shrimp are completely deveined, cooked to a state of pink perfection.
No matter what kind of bánh xèo eater you are, know it's completely acceptable to dispense with the chopsticks and use only your hands. You see everyone in attendance—and I do mean everyone—picking at the oversized, moon-shaped beasts with their fingers, bundling what they've plucked into little stogies, and hunching over their sauce bowls as they dunk so as to not drip any of it onto their laps. Your objective remains the same as always: eat it immediately, and use as many herbs as you can.
Let's talk about these herbs for a minute. They are not merely garnish. This oversized pile of dewy leaves is essential to your bánh xèo meal. They cancel the grease and balance the fried texture and greasy crunch the way a salad complements a crouton. Reams and reams are supplied, in mountains so high the waiter has to steady the stacks as he passes through the dining room lest the whole thing topple to the ground. With so many herbs to tend to—including mint, perilla and Thai basil—you'll look like a weekend gardener pruning his vegetable patch. And when you finish, your table will be littered with the discarded stems, puddles of spilled sauce and crumpled napkins. The scene of carnage is the same here as it is everywhere bánh xèo is served.
There are few reasons to go beyond the bánh xèo, but Thanh Ha actually does a very good rendition of banh hoi bo la lot. These betel leaf-wrapped ground-beef rolls come on a large plate with shredded cucumber, carrots and, most important, rice vermicelli noodles woven into floppy mats. The latter are perfectly suited to soak up the ambrosial fish sauce as though thirsty sponges. Skip Thanh Ha's rice dishes, though, especially the fried rice, which is rarely ordered and tasted stale on one visit. If you need to supplement your order, opt for bánh bèo, nine tiny saucers filled with steamed rice flour batter that you spoon up like Jell-O; Thanh Ha sprinkles each wiggly spoonful with micro bits of crunchy croutons. But regard the place as the bánh xèo specialist it is. Besides, you already know to get your bánh bèo at Quan Hy and Ngu Binh, don't you?
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.