Intertwining certain foods can cause my taste buds to go berserk; this time it- the sassy little appetizer known as 'goi cuon.' I've had an infatuation with these Vietnamese spring rolls since I first tasted them years ago at Le Colonial, the exotic French-Vietnamese restaurant on Rush, but a short time ago, I stumbled across the mother of all goi cuons.
Essentially a rice paper pocket full of poached shrimp, green leaf lettuce, chewy rice vermicelli noodles, crunchy bean sprouts and bright basil sprigs (sometimes aromatic mint leaves are substituted), they are the epitome of freshness; sorta like a delicious little soft-sandwich, served tidy and exotic like the Vietnamese, but with the class of the French thrown in for good measure.
When I first spotted the spring rolls in Ba Le French Bakery & Restaurant, I was stunned. I'd always thought of them as a tiny delicacy, expensive as hell and served as an appetizer only. The way Ba Le had them laid out was in a refrigerated case, three to a pack (including the spicy/sweet dipping sauce), and covered in plastic wrap, like a full meal, almost.
Not only were they double the size of any others I'd ever seen, they were half the price ($3.75). Surely there must be something wrong with them, no? Funky shrimp, wilted lettuce, maybe soggy noodles: anything to justify why I usually pay more than six bucks an order for ones that never look this appetizing. But after one tentative bite, I knew these were the real deal.
I guess that's whatcha get for going to the "higher end" Vietnamese restaurants. They cut down the order, the visual and the size, all the while trumping up the price tag. Those friendly kids over at Ba Le are doing no such thing. They are clean and simple about their preparation, keeping the ingredients blissfully minimal and smartly maintaining the super-low cost. Made in-house every day, I've never tasted rolls this explosively fragrant; the shrimp are cooked to perfection, the rice noodles are just soft enough, the bean sprouts have the requisite amount of crunch and the basil has a perfect bite to it. Plus, their rice paper rounds are the precise mix needed between chewy and soft, stretchy and delicate.
I've been known to trek seven miles round trip in the pelting snow and freezing cold for an order and cheerfully eat them standing up at the side-counter, dipping and chewing (perhaps there's even a grunt or two) like a madman before heading happily back out into the driving force of a bleak Chicago day.
The Final Rave:
Restaurants serving their housemade version of goi cuon line the streets of New Chinatown, so just make a day of it and hit 'em all. So, you're out ten bucks, big deal: You'll never get 'em like this anywhere else.
Keep it Going
Read it: Unabridged Books, Inc.
Peruse through a copy of "The Food of Vietnam" and explore the roots of Vietnamese cuisine via the back aisles of this popular Boys Town haunt.
Eat it: Pasteur
Be nice and give the homeless man outside a dollar, then dive into the cuisine of Northern Vietnam at this sparkly French/Vietnamese haven located on a seedy stretch of Broadway.
Drink it: Le Lan
Believe the hype and chill out with a refreshing tamarind martini (or two) at what "Food and Wine" magazine called the most anticipated restaurant opening in Chicago for 2004.
Get crazy with it: Tsunami Relief
Take all that cash you were about to blow and make a difference by donating to one of these organizations dedicated to helping the tsunami victims.