If you haven’t had bánh xèo, you should try it. The dish rivals my go-to at most Vietnamese restaurants, pho bo, the rice noodle soup with brisket and meatballs.
Now, you can get both at The Rolling Spring Roll in Syosset, the sibling to the Farmingdale restaurant Joe Bui opened in 2013. He started the business as a food truck in 2012, showcasing his mother’s recipe that inspired the name.
In his newest digs, a bigger kitchen allows Bui to offer dishes beyond spring rolls, pho and bánh mì. Some of them are great, especially the bánh xèo, pronounced boon say-OH, a stuffed crepe that’s lacy and crisp, so named for the sizzling of rice batter as it hits the pan.
Tackle it by breaking off a piece, using it to scoop up shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and cabbage inside. Then rip off a mint, romaine or basil leaf, drizzle it with a whisper of nuoc mam pha if you’d like — a condiment of fish sauce and other ingredients like sugar, lime, garlic, chilies and rice wine vinegar — wrap and eat.
It’s not just the kitchen that allows for extra elbow room; the whole restaurant is bigger than its Farmingdale sibling, with a short bar and a long sightline, tables with a mix of benches and chairs. Orange shades, somewhere between the color of sriracha sauce and a Negroni, accent the overhead lighting.
Speaking of drinks, you can’t get a cocktail here, but you can get soju, the somewhat astringent Korean spirit. The beers are also intriguing, with brews from the Philippines, Laos, China and Singapore. Prosecco and Alsatian riesling round out the wine list, a handful of selections that complement the menu.
Among starters, chicken wings are an exciting surprise, a rendition that sings with garlic and seduces with crispy rice-flour batter. Don’t underestimate the marinade, says Bui, who uses a different version of fish sauce on them than the nuoc mam pha on every table.
Though pungent fish sauces require special handling, it is so very useful in Vietnamese cooking, he said, likening it to Italian olive oils, with different levels of purity and grades.
Bui procures a couple different varieties for the restaurant, ordering them wholesale because the ones he likes are hard to get otherwise. After he opens a bottle, he might doctor it with garlic, lime and chilies, a concoction that really enlivens a dish.
You won’t find fish sauce on the whole branzino, a mild offering served with cilantro, romaine and mint. This abundance of herbs delivers a freshness that’s appealing after the long winter. Bui is antsy for spring so he can get more variety in his fresh herbs, from purple mint to a cousin to cilantro called culantro, also known as saw leaf.
As far as other dishes, new or otherwise, I’m less intrigued by bo luc lac, “shaking beef,” named for how it’s prepared in the wok. But I do respect it, a reflection of the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine, with seasoned beef cubes and red onions over rice. Like some of the rice bowls, it delivers subtle flavor overpowered by an abundance of starch.
There’s nothing overpowering about the pho here, the ultimate comfort food. In a beef broth supported by fragrant star anise and clove, brisket sheaths the bowl and meatballs bob among a rice noodle tangle.
You can doctor pho with condiments before you dig in with those chopsticks. Or — as you would with bánh xèo — season as you go.