Behold the majesty of banh it kep banh ram, one of the most dementedly wonderful versions of the one-thing-stuffed-inside-another-thing idea on this green earth. Deviously enough, banh it kep banh ram takes the concept a step further — stuffing one thing inside another version of itself. It's a glutinous rice cake, gently steamed, then stuffed halfway inside a deep-fried glutinous rice cake. One bite will take your mind apart.
The steamed part is soft, gooey and sticky — like a starchy, savory taffy. The fried part is awesomely, cracklingly crunchy, like deep-fried pork skin. Getting both parts in one bite is almost more texture than one mind can process. It's the joy of seeing one ingredient taken to every extreme of its textural possibility — the same pleasure as a big piece of brownie right out of the pan, with some edge and some center; the journey from crusty to chewy to gooey.
Banh it kep banh ram is a rare dish in Southern California, and one of the only places you can find it is Little Saigon's Ngu Binh. You can go to the chi-chi restaurants if you want, but most of the best food in Orange County's Little Saigon is served in places like this: a small, bare-bones location with a tiny menu, crammed into a massive strip mall with 15 other identical-looking restaurants. The place is constantly stuffed with Vietnamese locals, with hourlong lines at lunchtime. Most of these folks are regulars, for Ngu Binh is one of the secret treasures of Little Saigon.
Ngu Binh is a fantasyland for fetishists of subtle textures. Almost every dish involves some substance made from rice flour, and the textures of these various rice products are subtly and radiantly distinct. Banh uot tom chay is sheets of supple rice noodle, wrapped around firm grains of ground shrimp. Banh bot loc tran is transparent rice flour dumplings wrapped around shrimp; the texture here is strange and ephemerally slippery, like a marriage between mochi and jellyfish. Don't forget to dip everything in nuoc mam, the bright orange fish sauce that comes with every dish.
There isn't much in the way of amenities at Ngu Binh. The floor is linoleum, and the menu is a single piece of paper stuck under the glass tabletop. The menu is entirely in Vietnamese, and nobody speaks English.
But the brave will be well-rewarded, for this place serves perfect versions of some hard-to-find Central Vietnamese classics. Mai Tran, the chef and owner, never went to cooking school. She's cooking her family recipes the way she learned to cook them in her hometown of Thua Thien.
Like most of the best Vietnamese places, Ngu Binh is a specialist. It does only a few dishes, but it does them superbly. The signs on the outside proclaim that the specialty of the house is bun bo hue: a spicy, hearty, intensely flavored soup with bits of beef, pork chunks, blood cubes, fried slices of homemade pork loaf and, of course, rice flour noodles. If pho is the delicate, slender sister in the family of Vietnamese soups, bun bo hue is the big, hearty older brother — the friendly one who maybe doesn't shower quite as often as he might and probably curses too much to boot.
Tran won't let any of her employees assemble bun bo hue — every bowl that comes out of the kitchen is made by her hands, and her hands alone. Every bowl, she says, has to have exactly the right amount of each ingredient; anything else, and she would feel that she had shortchanged her customers. The best part of the bun bo hue is the fresh rice noodles, which Tran has made to her specifications in a local factory. The noodles are slippery and have an excellent, quiet chew.
But of all the variations on the theme of rice flour here, the greatest of them all is banh beo chen. One order comes as 10 tiny little saucers, each one filled with a bit of rice batter and then steamed to make a soft rice pancake. To finish, each is topped with mung bean paste, shrimp bits, fried scallions and a chunk or two of crisp pork skin.
You spoon a little orange fish sauce on top of the dish, use a metal spoon to gently loosen the rice pancake from its little home, and then consume. Eat them fast, for their perfect texture fades in a matter of minutes. But right out of the steamer, they're pure magic. The rice pancake is astonishingly soft, like somebody managed to add a little gelatin into a puff of whipped cream; it enters your mouth with a slightly gummy little chew and then melts into rice-cream. It's like eating a bouncy cloud, topped with fried crunchies.
Location: Ngu Binh, 14072 Magnolia St., No. 107, Westminster. (714) 903-6000
Price: Entrees $6 to $7. Drinks $1 to $3.
Best dishes: No. 11, banh beo chen (steamed rice pancakes in small dishes); No. 15, banh it kep banh ram (steamed rice cake stuffed in fried rice cake); No. 1, bun bo hue dac biet (house special beef noodle soup); No. 5, mi quang dac biet (turmeric rice noodles with pork); No. 16, banh uot tom chay (rice sheets wrapped around ground shrimp); No. 8, banh bot loc tran (transparent shrimp dumplings); drink No. 1, cafe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee).
Details: Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Iced coffee, fruit drinks, soft drinks; no alcohol. Cash only. Lot parking.