The Vietnamese Dosa
Anchored in Vietnamese food history, banh xeo is one the most iconic dishes served at this country’s tables. This snack actually holds a fascinating and surprising story, which disproves the hypothesis that this crepe is a gift from the French cuisine of the late 19th century. According to Cameron Stauch — a chef and writer who lives and works in Hanoi — and some other researchers, banh xeo is in fact a relative of the savoury Indian dosa and a result of the Hindu-influenced kingdom of Champa which occupied the south-central coast of Vietnam until the 19th century.
Even though the recipe might have evolved from its original form resulting in different adaptations, nowadays one thing is sure; the version sold from the early 20th century never fails.
The Art of Eating Banh Xeo
Banh xeo’s name comes from the intense sizzling sound the batter produces when it’s poured into the frying pan. The mixture of this savoury pancake — usually made of rice flour, water, eggs and scallions — varies depending on its origin. The central regions are home to a thicker and smaller pan-fried version. The further south you go, the larger the banh xeo gets — this formula uses coconut milk to get a thinner and crispier texture, as well as some turmeric to provide it with a yellow colour.
Whole prawns, pork belly, bean sprouts and mung beans are sprinkled on the batter, which rests on the hot-fired skillet. Once it is cooked, this golden crepe is folded and served on a tray at the table, accompanied with a bunch of assorted fresh herbs and vegetables such as lettuce, mustard leaves, mint or Vietnamese basil. Grab a chunk of the crepe and use the greens as a wrap for the banh xeo — rice paper or banh trang are sometimes used to get the perfect experience — ready to be dipped in some nuoc mam. Add some extra chilli to make the most of the bite.
In order to locate the best banh xeo in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the following places. Here is our verdict.
Banh Xeo 46A
46 Dinh Cong Trang, Q1
Price: VND75,000 per portion
Open hours: 10am to 2pm and 4pm to 9pm
The search started in the spot that is meant to be the best in town. Banh Xeo 46A has been recommended in guides and featured in numerous travel shows including Anthony Bourdain’s. To find this banh xeo, look for the pink church in Tan Dinh. Across the street after entering the alley, this corner remains as a veteran in the business; it has been selling these crepes for almost 90 years.
Groups of tourists come here to experience one of the top dishes you can find on Vietnamese menus. Perhaps this is the reason they remove the head of the prawns, unlike most of the other eateries, something that picky customers might be thankful for.
Some say it is overpriced and misses the essence of what it used to be but honestly, after my experience, there was no disappointment. The size of the crepe was challenging to finish, it had a good amount of fillings with a balanced crispiness, all brought together with great service.
Banh Xeo Mien Tay Dien Bien Phu 335
335 Dien Bien Phu, Q3
Price: VND35,000 per portion
Open hours: 2.30pm to 10pm
In an alley just off bustling Dien Bien Phu, right before Banana Garden Market (Cho Vuon Chuoi), you can find this popular banh xeo place. This spot also remains on my list of favourites and starts serving early dinners as soon as rush hour begins. Many drivers don’t even park their bikes since they can just take their crepe on the go as the kitchen overlooks the street, like in most of these eateries.
The owner is a known crepe master, as well as the mother of one of my students, who joined me to sample its speciality and shared some secrets about their restaurant. The crunchy pancake that arrived at the table was slightly smaller compared to other versions, but it was substantial enough. The prawns inside had been cooked previously, which gave a more intense flavour to the crepe. This, combined with a fresh homemade chilli sauce, definitely made it an extraordinary dish.
Banh Xeo Ngoc Son
103 Ngo Quyen, Q5
Price: VND50,000 per portion
Open hours: 9am to 9pm
If you happen to be in Cho Lon, Ngoc Son should be your place to go. This three-storey establishment has been serving crepes for more than 20 years with great success, and the crowds that flock there are living proof of its appeal. Families sit around the tables waiting for a colossal banh xeo that dwarfs the plate. Famous for being crispy and with nice lacy edges, this pancake comes with a good amount of fillings in which the prawns are particularly big. However, I found that the dough was lacking a bit of taste, probably diluted by the watery consistency of the bean sprouts.
Banh Xeo Muoi Xiem
190 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q3
Price: VND85,000 per portion
Open hours: 10am to 10pm
Muoi Xiem is the name of a chain that has a few restaurants around the city. This place, inspired by the Mekong Delta countryside, serves traditional food typical of the region. Inside you will find yourself in what looks like a bamboo hut with pictures on the walls of Vietnamese women cooking. With a wide menu full of southern delicacies we decided to try something new since they offer a few different versions of banh xeo with different fillings.
The chosen variety was made with seafood, shreds of coconut and extra coconut milk added to the batter. Unfortunately the pancake was too greasy and to our surprise too empty; there was hardly any seafood and the ingredients were all lumped together in the middle. So overall, together with poor service, it was a bit of a disappointing experience considering the price of the pancake.
Banh Xeo CMTT
656 Cach Mang Thang Tam, Q3
Price: VND8,000 per portion
Opening hours: 2.30pm to 10pm
This is a tiny spot that sits on a corner of one of the busiest streets in Ho Chi Minh City and serves the difficult-to-find central region version of banh xeo. This meal was an interesting local experience that included stares from Vietnamese people and the constant hustle of motorbikes going up and down this busy road.
It certainly gets quite full at night, so go early to grab a stool and indulge in these cute tiny crepes that can be easily devoured in two bites. These were the first banh xeo I tasted when I moved to Vietnam so my judgement towards them is mostly favourable. However, they do feel a bit greasy. This can be solved by adding more herbs to the wrap, but it is perhaps something which is difficult to avoid since they are deep fried.
Even though these banh xeo palaces have an indisputable star in their menus, they also offer a wide selection of other Vietnamese dishes such as fresh and fried spring rolls, bo ba lot — beef wrapped in betel leaf — and much more. So, if you haven’t tried it yet, gather some friends and get your hands dirty devouring this delicious crepe that is so integral to Vietnamese cuisine.