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Summer fresh -- call it a wrap

September 01, 2004|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

Vietnamese summer rolls are cool salads wrapped in sheer circles of rice paper -- just what you want to eat on a hot summer day. Inside are dainty bits of pork and shrimp, boiled rice noodles and herbs such as mint, Thai basil and rau ram, a peppery Asian herb known as laksa leaf in Singapore.

It all gets rolled tightly in the stretchy rice paper, often with chives or scallions poking out the top, and dipped in a sauce, most often sweet-sour nuoc cham, a blend of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and chiles or hoisin-peanut concoctions garnished with cilantro and chopped peanuts.

The name in Vietnamese -- goi cuon -- means a wrapped or rolled collection of fresh ingredients. Good ones are actually more complicated to make than you'd think. Traditionally, the pork should be simmered in a good homemade stock, though we found several pork variations (and even vegetarian versions). And the rice paper is a little tricky to work with.

But the many Vietnamese restaurants around town make wonderful ones that are perfect to-go snacks. Eat them soon, though -- they're best when very fresh.

Chillin': Two sauces -- a sake reduction and a sweet, red chile sauce -- accompany the Vietnamese rolls at Buddha's Belly, an Asian fusion cafe in Los Angeles. The rolls are served chilled and sliced in thirds to look almost like rolled sushi, with a filling that includes slivered chicken breast, shrimp, mint, cilantro and bits of sauteed onion. Also lettuce and rice noodles, but not too much of either one.

Chilled Vietnamese rolls are two for $6.50 at Buddha's Belly, 7475 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 931-8588.

Down to the crunch: The restaurant Brodard in Garden Grove is famous for summer rolls called nem nuong cuon, filled with grilled pork meatballs and something crunchy (the secret is a strip of crisp, fried dough inside).

We also liked the rolls filled with ground shrimp, called chao tom cuon, made with sweetened shrimp paste, shredded lettuce, rice noodles, strands of cucumber and carrot and that same secret crunch. Brodard's warm, slightly sweet orange dipping sauce, which includes bits of pork and egg, is unique and tasty.

Chao tom cuon are four for $5 at Brodard, 9892 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove; (714) 530-1744.

A roll that rocks: Au Lac, a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant in Fountain Valley, makes bi cuon -- summer rolls filled with shreds of fried tofu and vegetarian "ham," as well as lettuce, rice noodles and aromatic red shiso, which the Vietnamese call rau tia to. The shredded texture is appealing, and shiso adds an intriguing accent.

Bi cuon are four for $3.95 at Au Lac Vegetarian Restaurant, 16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley (in Mile Square Plaza); (714) 418-0658.

Simply grand: Grand Garden is a sprawling restaurant in Westminster's Little Saigon with a pretty garden and a long menu of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, including goi cuon. These are classic summer rolls, filled with shrimp, pork and rice noodles. What makes them stand out is the flavor of the pork, which is marinated and then grilled. The sauce, hoisin enriched with peanut butter, is terrific too.

Goi cuon are two for $4.50 at Grand Garden Restaurant, 8894 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; (714) 893-1200.

Just tops: So 1 means "No. 1" in Vietnamese, and the goi cuon at Pho So 1 in Van Nuys are exceptionally good, among the best. They contain the usual shrimp, pork, lettuce and rice noodles; the restaurant adds bean sprouts too. A strand of green onion sticks out of the top. The sauce is one of the best we tasted -- a rich, complex, sweet, peanut mixture topped with chopped nuts.

Goi cuon are three for $4.25 at Pho So 1, 6450 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys; (818) 989-6377. Other branches of this chain are in Reseda, Alhambra and Las Vegas.

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