Grilled Pork Spring Rolls at Baguette House & Cafe (Photo by Jana Birchum)
What is the perfect food? To me, it’s a comforting dish that’s easily accessible, affordable, relatively painless to cook, and hits the spot every time, even when the version you’re eating isn’t great. Goi cuon (also known as spring rolls, salad rolls, or summer rolls; I’ll call them spring rolls here) is that dish for me.
As I sit in one of the oldest and most established Vietnamese/Chinese restaurants in the capital (hint: it was one of the only pho shops in the 90s, strictly Vietnamese then), train eating spring rolls, something dawns on me as I drown them in peanut hoisin sauce and chili garlic sauce from Huy Fong Foods. They’re always satisfying, like mediocre pizza or fries and queso when you’re hungover, because it could very well be the perfect food for Central and Southeast Texas.
A spring roll is basically a small salad with some type of protein wrapped in fresh rice paper and served with a dip of the hoisin peanut or fish variety, most often. There are two schools of thought on the origin of this dish. Some claim it was an innovation of Quang Trung, the second emperor of the Tay Son dynasty (1788-92). Legend has it that he wanted his soldiers to be always on the move, even forcing them to carry themselves in hammocks, taking turns sleeping while they chased their enemies. This constant movement required mobile, portable, light food that did not need to be heated and could be devoured while walking. The other argument for the provenance of spring rolls is that they are a direct result of the Chinese occupation of Vietnam over 2,000 years ago, due to their similarity to the Chinese spring roll. However, where the Chinese spring roll is fried and crispy, the Vietnamese spring roll is soft and fresh, and the rice paper wrapper is a Vietnamese invention.
Have humans packaged salty and sweet ingredients in a flavorful type of wrapper and ingested them for thousands of years? Yes. However, the various combinations of fresh herbs and lettuce, rice vermicelli, pickled vegetables and protein, wrapped in fresh rice paper and then dipped in something thick and sweet or umami, sour and salty, are uniquely Vietnamese. China is the origin of so many culinary traditions, including the spring roll in its various deep-fried permutations across Asia and Asian-inspired cuisine, but they’ve never had a fresh one like us. we encounter in the Vietnamese culinary lexicon.
If you come across a Vietnamese restaurant that doesn’t serve a version of a spring roll, that wouldn’t be suspicious per se, but out of character. In Texas, it’s basically the fries on our burger, if you count a bowl of steaming pho, a bowl of bún, or a bánh mì as your burger. And when you come across a Vietnamese establishment that doesn’t serve spring rolls, it’s also a place to eat if you like that type of food, because they don’t cater to any western palate. I guarantee they will have equally delicious and fresh offerings.
Houston, Texas from 1975 to 1988 was ground zero for the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. And while San Jose, California was home to the largest population of ethnic Vietnamese until around 2007, many left California in the late 1980s for more affordable housing and accessible jobs in Texas, especially in the southeast region of the state. Texans benefited greatly, culturally and gastronomically, from the blunders and tragedies of the Vietnam War. I do not write this lightly, nor steeped in cynicism, but any diaspora begets regenerative cultural and food migrations, new inevitable combinations, education and the fusion of food fads.
Most spring rolls are legit by my palate’s calibrations, but the ones listed here are exceptional, and if you find yourself in one of these places, don’t sleep on those tiny salad rolls.
Home & Coffee Baguette
Grilled Pork Spring Rolls (3) – $7.50
This mainstay of North Lamar báhn mì in Austin’s “Chinatown” (we can make a good case for renaming it “Little Vietnam”) is one of the most refreshing, satisfying, texturally perfect and perfect spring hearty (for what is generally considered an appetizer). ride in town. I usually opt for the grilled pork. You get three substantial rolls, which are more than enough to share if you’re having a sandwich or to serve as a light meal on their own. The pork is savory, tastefully marinated and reminiscent of Chinese roast pork, but less sweet. But it’s the veggies and roughage that shine here, with always bright green leaf lettuce, fresh cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, and a fresh rice paper that holds it all together. The rolls are never dry and hard around the edges, a sure sign they’re made to order, or so close that most people couldn’t tell the difference. A substantial to-go ramekin of gooey peanut hoisin sauce and chili garlic sauce is served for dipping. Absent, omnipresent, the fine rice vermicelli, but with the mini salad and the grilled pork, you can’t miss them. Baguette House also offers grilled beef, grilled pork bun (much like sausages) and a vegetarian option.
Pho Phong Luu (Noble Pho)
Grilled Pork Sausage Spring Rolls (2) – $5.50
I’m a newcomer to this location, previously on North Lamar, now reopened on Dessau Road. Fabulous food, family atmosphere, very cool place, always great service. These rolls are going to be medium to smallest in this roundup, but expertly crafted with delicious and unique ingredients. These rolls are tightly wrapped and thin, with a large oblong slice of grilled Vietnamese sausage, a lightly marinated carrot, fresh cilantro, rice vermicelli, cooked greens and a fried rice paper “cigar” for texture. . They clearly married these ingredients with a purpose. The tartness of the carrot, the crunch and texture of the cigar, a bit of chewiness from the greens, and the salty richness of the sausage, all served with a thick and rich peanut hoisin sauce, combine for one of the best spring rolls in town. I pile each bite with chili garlic sauce, the ubiquitous Indonesian condiment found in most Vietnamese establishments. I would be wary of any place that doesn’t have a version available. There is also a tofu roll available.
Goi cuon (pork and shrimp spring rolls) (2) – 5$
Tan My regularly makes all the noodle shop lists for their light but complex pho bowls, definitely one of the best bowls of noodle soup in town for my money. Their spring rolls are in this same echelon. They serve a shorter roll, with a healthy helping of fresh green leaf lettuce, rice vermicelli, thinly sliced roast pork and halved boiled prawns, and a big stick of fresh cucumber for that crunch. There’s no pickled daikon and/or carrots, but there are plenty, served with a peanut-hoisin sauce. The menu mentions bean sprouts in this version, but I haven’t had bean sprouts in the last orders I’ve had, an ingredient that’s definitely not missing. They also offer a version with fried tofu and bean sprouts (optionally).
Grilled Pork Spring Roll (3) – $7
1309 W. 45th
The little red trailer on the northwest corner of 45th and Burnet in the Rosedale Market parking lot is a win. They do this choose-your-own venture with their menu, and you can add avocado, extra meat, and/or an egg to your buns, or whatever, if you really want. I don’t recommend any of this on their rolls, as their grilled pork spring rolls, as is, are all the rage. They’re stuffed with richly seasoned grilled pork, lots of crunchy lightly pickled carrots, a little cilantro, vermicelli noodles, and chopped iceberg lettuce (the only downside, but it adds a little extra crunch). You’re going to get three squat buns, plump like Tan My’s but bigger, and a thin peanut hoisin with peanut garlic chili sauce, plenty for a light lunch or to share with a bánh mì or a bowl. . They also have shrimp, chicken, and tofu options.
Spend a cuon-tastic day: Goi cuon in Pho Van (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Goi cuon (grilled pork spring rolls) (2) – $4.25
8557 Search #120
The no-frills, unassuming pho shop at the second-best strip mall for Asian food is a mainstay, and their spring rolls are always above average. This is the best value for money in this roundup. They come with hot roast pork, lightly marinated carrots, fresh green leaf lettuce, rice vermicelli and bean sprouts, served with a thin peanut hoisin sauce with lots of fresh peanuts and marinated carrots on the above. These are decent sized rolls, and the hot pork really sets them off. The juxtaposition of hot and cold may seem strange, but it works perfectly. It’s like adding grilled steak or chicken breast to your salad. Pho Van also offers shrimp, grilled beef, chicken and tofu.