While in San Jose (CA) at a Vietnamese restaurant, friends KirkJ and his wife ordered and loved a specialty that I had never heard of—bánh khọt, that he points out is difficult to find in the Seattle area. It’s apparently equally scarce elsewhere, not as common as its cousin, bánh xèo, whose batter is made from the same ingredients of rice flour and coconut milk. Rather than the omelet-like presentation of the latter, bánh khọt seem like little tartlets, grilled in special cast iron pans that look like Japanese takoyaki or Danish ebelskiver pans. The cakes are a little more than 2 inches across and are topped with some sort of savory filling, usually fresh shrimp or chopped or ground dried shrimp. Bánh khọt are traditionally eaten as breakfast or snack in Vietnam, and by wrapping a lettuce leaf and herbs around them before dipping them in nước chấm. The ideal examples are crispy on the bottoms and edges, but soft in the center. Sometimes, a dollop of coconut cream is spooned or drizzled on top.
As my wife and I were on our last full day away from home, what better opportunity to try finding bánh khọt than in the San Gabriel Valley, home to many Vietnamese restaurants. A quick internet search turned up Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel, apparently the only restaurant that makes them in the valley. A few restaurants in Orange County have them as well.
Even if three of us came for a specific reason, looking over the menu was treading in unfamiliar territory. Some of the standard repertoire of Vietnamese dishes are here, but most of it, written only in Vietnamese and its romanized alphabet, is probably unrecognizable to those unacquainted with the cuisine in and around Hà Tiên in western Vietnam, where the family who owns the restaurant is from.
Bánh khọt and bánh xèo were pictured on the menu right next to each other. We decided to try both. Almost as an afterthought, we also asked for two types of fried spring rolls: chả gìo ré and chả gìo thường.
The presentation of the bánh khọt (☆☆) was striking, cups of yellow shells with an orange filling of what I imagine was ground shrimp. It was hard to tell since I detected no shrimp taste, let alone taste of any kind. In fact, turmeric’s earthy quality dominated. These were not the crisped shells that I was hoping for either, just rice flour’s unmistakable chewiness. I have to say though that the shells were admirably thin.
Equally disappointing was the bánh xèo (☆☆) that was filled with a mountain of bean sprouts, too much for my liking, and so few shrimp that we all asked, “Where’s the shrimp?” That was it, nothing else. The crepe was also coated with a glistening layer of frying oil. As with the bánh khọt, turmeric broadcast its color and flavor. This dish does not hold a candle to the bánh xèo at Greenleaf in my neck of the woods.
In both cases, nước chấm provided needed zip to otherwise bland entrées.
It was fortunate that we added fried spring rolls to our order at the last minute, or the whole meal would’ve been a disappointment. The menu showed four kinds. With no English translation, we asked the waiter what the differences were. What we heard was though the filling was the same (ground pork mainly), the wrappings were different, which the waiter said he couldn’t explain well enough. Chả gìo thường (☆☆½) is the more familiar spring roll wrapped in wheat flour skin, which makes for a very crackly crunch. The revelation was chả gìo ré (☆☆☆) because the wrapping can be an incredibly lacy rice flour netting that is time-consuming to make and therefore uncommon. HTQ may have used a vermicelli noodle shortcut instead. As the waiter said, the filling was made with pork.
It might be a better idea to return here for their regional dishes.
Hà Tiên Quán Restaurant
529 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776