As I’ve mentioned before, Vietnamese food has always been one of my favorite things to eat. Both healthy and filling, it packs tons of flavor and texture through an inviting blend of fresh and steamed veggies, vibrant green herbs, and an assortment of spicy peppers. A Vietnamese chicken salad makes for a delicious (and portable!) summertime lunch and when cold weather gets the best of you, there’s nothing a steaming hot bowl of pho can’t fix. And although I’m not sure I’m brave enough to try delicacies such as hot vit lon, most commonly known as balut (a fertilized duck egg that you eat right out of the shell), I have always yearned to try some more authentic Vietnamese dishes without the added expense of flying overseas.
When I moved home over a year ago, I started working with a Vietnamese girl and we instantly became friends. Her mom is a good cook and occasionally my friend would surprise me at work with things like banh cam (balls of chewy rice flour pastry filled with sweet bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds, and deep fried) and traditional chao ga (chicken porridge) for me to sample. Both dishes were excellent, which only fueled my obsession to try more.
So last week when my friend suggested we go out for some authentic Vietnamese food on the West Bank, I couldn’t have been more excited. Due to the West Bank’s high Vietnamese population, restaurants on that side of the River tend to cater more towards that demographic, making it a breeding ground for excellent and traditional Vietnamese fare. As we pulled up to the very popular Hoa Hong 9 (Nine Roses) on Stephens Street I was more than ready to try whatever she threw at me, so I was somewhat surprised when she suggested spring rolls. Spring rolls? I had certainly eaten spring rolls before so what could be special about these? Well, what couldn’t be more special about these spring rolls. Nine Roses gives you your choice of marinated raw meats, a cast iron hot plate, and everything else you need to assemble your very own, putting you in charge of your spring rolling destiny.
We ordered the spring roll combination plate, called BÒ, TÔM, MỰC NƯỚNG VỈ (#12.07 on the menu, I believe) and before we knew it we were staring at a massive plate of raw thin sliced beef, jumbo shrimp, and pieces of fresh squid topped with big cubes of cold butter and a hot plate to get cooking. The seafood went on the grill first, since it took a little longer than the beef, and my friend schooled me in the proper spring roll rolling technique. After the rice paper gets a quick dip in a bowl of hot water, the trick is to quickly lay it on the plate, with one end slightly hanging off. This makes it a lot easier to find and grab one end of the rice paper once you’re ready to roll. The other trick is to place your spring roll fillings (the meat, veggies, and noodles) in slightly conservative portions (otherwise the rice paper tends to break), and place those ingredients near the end of the rice paper that’s hanging off the plate. Then you can easily stretch one end of the rice paper across your filling, tucking and rolling as you go. Once you get the hang of it, it really is quite easy, even though I completely butchered my roll during my first attempt! Figure out what you like the best and then go to town. Hate cilantro? Don’t put any in there! Your vision needs fine tuning? Add extra carrots! Just want meat and noodles? Go for it! The sky’s the limit.
To bring variety to the table, we ordered some soups in addition to the spring rolls. One of my friends got the won ton soup (pictured above), my Vietnamese friend ordered the crabmeat and asparagus soup, and in an attempt to order something different, I settled on the crabmeat soup with shark fin broth. The large bowls of soup were served piping hot and the crabmeat soups reminded me a lot of egg drop soup. That same gelatinous consistency was there, sans the strings of egg, and I actually enjoyed my friend’s asparagus and crabmeat soup more than my own. The added burst of color and the mild earthy flavor of the asparagus was a delightful addition to an otherwise boring soup. Other than that our soups tasted very similar.
All in all my first Vietnamese spring rolling experience was an incredibly positive one. We had a lot of fun playing with our food and there was so much left over from our combination plate that my friend and I were both able to make a couple of spring rolls to bring home to our boyfriends. I would say that Nine Roses is a great place for big groups, but I also think the DIY spring rolls would make for a memorable and fun date night. Either way, I know I’ll be back to try some more adventurous dishes from this fresh and flavorful cuisine.
Crabmeat and Asparagus Soup
My second attempt at rolling a spring roll (I’m sparing y’all from the horrific sight of my first…) This one has squid, shrimp, mint, cilantro, lettuce, pickled carrots, Vermicelli noddles, and cucumber.