The Saigon Crepe (Banh Xeo) at East-West Café
By Robert Ettlinger
Do not be led astray by this dish’s title; this is no crepe. No onion-skin thin wrapper wound around some pasty mash is this. Crepes are usually eaten as a snack or dessert; this is a meal. The French occupation of what is now Vietnam merged crepes into the Vietnamese cuisine but compared to a French crepe, the Saigon crepe has the heft of a manhole cover, not a doily.
It’s big, and while it is listed in the appetizer section, it is not a dainty tidbit. Eat half, if you plan to have an entrée, then move the plate to your dinner mates as you’d need a spatula to move the crepe alone. Folded upon itself, it covers most of a dinner plate and is stuffed with more goodies than a young mother’s purse. The rice flour skin is delightfully crunchy, without the slightest hint of grease and is lightly charred like the Palouse before harvest. Perfumed with lightly fried onions and mung beans, it is more rigid than a pancake but flimsier than a cracker and results in a bite that may be heard at the next table. And what a delight to encounter the filling of this dish! Be prepared for the combination of succulent briny shrimp, perfectly bite-sized and de-tailed, and medallions of moist, tender chicken carried aloft by a crowd of mung bean sprouts to the music of onions and jicama and the drumbeat of the occasional mushroom.
While I find this dish well balanced as is there is a dipping sauce served in a plastic one-ounce cup alongside for those who want the addition of a tingly sweetness. My advice is to ask the server for a small bowl to contain the sauce in order to make your dipping more practical. Pouring the sauce directly on the crepe leads to external sogginess with little penetration to the core, grievous error. Take advantage of the lettuce leaves served on the side to wrap up one-handed portions and avoid losing any members of this ensemble.
Tam Vuong, owner of East-West Café for the past 13 years, takes pride in this dish which starts with a batter of rice flour and the secret ingredient of coconut powder. Mr. Vuong pointed out that patience was a necessity in frying the batter which only makes this excellent crepe with the very least of heat. The chicken and shrimp are seasoned and simmered till tender then jicama is added for sweetness and sprouts for juicy crunch.
This dish is $12 with a dipping sauce and lettuce for wrapping.
The East-West Café offers a full menu of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Mr. Vuong’s favorites include the Wonton Soup, (Hoanh Thanh), which has wontons made with pork, shallots and water chestnuts seasoned with oyster sauce and sesame oil floating in a soup of pork, prawns, cilantro, onion and pepper, for $10.50. He also recommends the Panang Curry, thick and creamy with fried green beans, mushrooms and steamed rice, and your choice of meat, prawns or tofu for $ 14-15.50.
East-West Café is located at 2514 N. Proctor St.; (253) 756-5092.
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