Hanoi's cheapest rice rolls draw crowds

By Quynh Mai   March 27, 2023 | 06:31 pm PT
A steamed rice rolls eatery features a VND13,000 (US$0.55) plate considered one of the cheapest in Hanoi.

Sixty-two-year-old Pham Van Chinh is the second-generation owner of the banh cuon eatery deep in an alley that begins at 29 Thuy Khue Street. The location is a familiar breakfast spot for locals open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. During the rush hour of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., the restaurant's busiest time, lines of motorbikes clog the small alley.

A set of banh cuon filled with wood ear mushroom, ground pork comes with dipping sauce with pork rolls for VND20,000. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Mai

A set of banh cuon filled with wood ear mushroom, ground pork comes with dipping sauce with pork rolls for VND20,000. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Mai

Chinh's mother opened the establishment in the 1950s as Ms. Nguyet's Steamed Rice Rolls. Later, after Chinh inherited the business, he changed the shop name to Thuy Khue Steamed Rice Rolls to make it easier to find. Chinh and his wife have now been selling the dish here for more than 40 years.

Pham Duy Anh, a 35-year-old Thuy Khue resident, said the shop will be forever associated with his childhood. He was often brought here for breakfast with his parents when he was young. These days, it’s Anh’s turn to bring his wife and children for breakfast. This is how Chinh's shop is commonly known throughout the generations of regulars.

Anh said that he has tried many other famous banh cuon places in Hanoi, but Thuy Khue is still the best.

"Perhaps the taste is so familiar that I cannot find other places as good, nor is it as cheap," he said.

The shop has two main dishes: banh cuon with ground pork and wood ear mushroom fillings, and banh cuon trung (steamed rice rolls with egg). A plate used to cost VND10,000 (42 cents) per serving, and you could get an extra side dish of cha pork rolls for VND5,000 dong. The dish remained at this price for many years, until November 2022, when Chinh increased the price to VND13,000 per serving, and VND7,000 for extra cha. For comparison, the average price of this dish in Hanoi ranges from VND25,000 to VND30,000 per plate. In some places it can even cost more than VND40,000.

Since the dish requires several steps to make, Chinh jokes that he will never be rich if he keeps selling at this price. He maintains the same price because he wants to keep his "heirloom customers" as frequent diners. Chinh is also not under much financial pressure because his children are all married and have stable jobs.

"Many people told me to increase the price instead of closing the shop, because they’ve been used to the flavor for decades and they don’t want to find another place," Chinh said. With old frequent diners, he still only charges VND10,000 VND per plate.

Chinh prepares rice rolls at his eatery in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Mai

Chinh prepares rice rolls at his eatery in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Mai

Every day, Chinh and his wife get up at 4 a.m. They need to prepare the flour and fillings, as well as clean the shop. What Chinh is proud of most is his dish's rice batter. Good plain rice is milled with an old stone mortar, then it is filtered through water to remove impurities. The final product is the rice batter for banh cuon. The recipe was passed down by Chinh's mother and has been retained for decades.

All food here is made to order. Chinh evenly pours the rice batter on the surface of a steamer, and then covers it. After about a minute, the roll is cooked. It is slightly chewy. Chinh then uses a flat bamboo stick to scoop the roll onto a plate. He places the rich meaty filling in the middle and then carefully rolls it up without tearing. The roll is then cut in half and topped with fried shallots.

The extra pork rolls are cut into 3-centimeter pieces and put in a bowl of sweet and sour dipping sauce. The rice rolls are smooth and translucent. Even through 2 to 3 layers of the wrapped rolls, you can still see the fillings and smell the aroma of shiitake mushrooms. When eating, you can feel the crunchiness of the wood ear mushroom, the savory taste of the meat, combined with the light sweetness of the rolls.

Chinh and his wife use about 5 to 7 kilograms of rice every day, producing more than 200 plates of banh cuon. They can sell up to 300 plates daily during weekends.

Twenty-four-year-old Dam Ngoc Hanh from Quang Ninh Province, three hours drive from Hanoi, often eats breakfast here with her friends. Hanh said that the banh cuon is well-seasoned and is suitable for the first meal of the day. "The rolls are stuffed with fillings. I get full after just a few bites," she said.

Since the shop is located deep in a narrow alley, it can be a bit difficult to find. You may have to wait in line if it gets crowded since there are not too many places to sit. Customers can request more or less rice rolls depending on their appetite.

Chinh said that if guests leave leftovers, it makes him feel that his cooking efforts are not respected, and these customers will not be welcomed next time.

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