When Lien Dang first opened her Little Saigon restaurant Huong Binh, most of the customers were Vietnamese immigrants. For nearly 25 years, they’ve streamed in for fragrant, steaming bowls of duck broth soup, shrimp and pork dumplings and grilled meat.
Now, as the restaurant continues to serve Vietnamese specialties, Dang sees more second-generation immigrants: The people who came in as kids with their parents now sit down to lunch with their own spouses and children.
She’s made a few changes to the menu for this younger crowd, adding street-food appeal with freshly pressed sugar cane and banh trang tron, a snack of rice paper, basil, beef jerky, dried squid and shrimp. But mostly, she just makes the same great food that’s been drawing people to the simple, strip-mall spot for the past quarter century.
More than the restaurant itself, the neighborhood around it has changed. When Dang opened, the area was all Vietnamese. Now, she says, the atmosphere is different, more diverse. But she loves sharing her culture and food with the community, even as that culture has spread out from what was once its center.
“Now, you can go anywhere in Seattle and get Vietnamese food; you don’t have to come to Little Saigon anymore,” Dang says.
But you should: Dang’s banh hoi, intricate bundles of rice vermicelli noodles, are an example of a dish you won’t find all over Seattle. And while pho might be the Vietnamese noodle soup available on every corner here, Dang serves her personal favorite, bun bo hue, a specialty of the Vietnamese city where she is from.
However, her grown daughter—Taylor Hoang, who owns her own Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Cyclo Café—loves bo la lot, beef wrapped in wild betel leaf, best (see recipe below). The dish, which takes its name and signature flavor from the fragrant leaf (which is related to black pepper), doesn’t have a permanent spot on the menu at Huong Binh—though it shows up as a special from time to time—so you’ll have to make it at home to try Dang’s version.
Hoang likes to eat it with a strong-smelling anchovy-pineapple sauce called mam nem, which isn’t in this recipe. But that’s part of the fun of a dish like this: Everyone gets to customize it to their own taste with herbs, vegetables, rice noodles, rice paper and dipping sauce.
Chinatown/International District, 1207 S Jackson St., No. 104; 206.720.4907.
Photograph courtesy of Taylor Hoang. Lien Dang (left) and her daughter Taylor Hoang.
Try the Tradition
Traditionally, bo la lot is one dish in a Vietnamese meal called bo 7 mon, or seven courses of beef, which you can order at several local restaurants, including Tamarind Tree, Seven Beef and Green Leaf.
Gather Your Ingredients
The betel leaves—known as “la lot” in Vietnamese—for this recipe can be found with the herbs at the Chinatown–International District’s Viet-Wah Supermarket, and are labeled as “la lop.” The market is a good spot to find other potentially unfamiliar ingredients, such as Vietnamese five-spice powder.
Bo La Lot: Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf
1 1/4 pounds lean ground beef
1/4 pound lean ground pork
3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon MSG (optional, though it will change the flavor if you leave it out)
1/2 tablespoon Vietnamese five-spice powder
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 small white onion, finely chopped
4 ounces betel leaf
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
1 cup chopped scallions (sautéed or microwaved with 1 tablespoon olive oil for 40 seconds)
Mix together the meats, spices, oils, garlic and onion in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Soak six bamboo skewers in water for 5 minutes before beginning to roll. Place about 11/2 tablespoons of the meat in your palm and form it into a small log. Transfer onto a large betel leaf and roll the leaf around the log, then push onto the skewer to secure the leaf. Each skewer should hold about five rolls. (If you need to use smaller leaves, you may have to double them up lengthwise so they still cover the meat log.)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place skewers on a rack over a broiler-safe pan and put in oven for 18–20 minutes. When cooking is done, switch to broil (high) for 3–4 minutes. Dress with scallions and chopped peanuts.
How to serve
Serve skewers with rice vermicelli noodles (cooked according to package), large rice-paper rolls (with hot water at the table to cook them), green leaf lettuce, cilantro, mint, Thai basil, bean sprouts and dipping sauce (recipe below). Each diner can make their own rolls with fresh greens, noodles and rice paper. Dip it and enjoy.
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE
Vietnamese Mixed Fish Sauce
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon (or to taste) Sriracha chili paste
In a medium-size bowl, mix water and sugar together. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Add remaining ingredients and stir until well mixed. Refrigerate unused sauce; it will keep for three weeks.