Café Cuong is a tiny family run café that is best known for its Banh Mi sandwiches, which are excellent, and its Vietnamese coffee. The café is in what appears to be a row house and it feels like the counter and the one tiny table are in what used to be a small living room. While the focus is on Banh Mi, they also frequently have Com chay cha bong, which are sheets of crispy rice topped with fish sauce, dried shrimp and pork floss (pork shredded so finely it has the consistency of cotton candy). Of late they have also been serving Banh Gio, also known as Vietnamese pyramid rice dumplings. Banh Gio are made with a pork stock, rice flour and tapioca starch batter that is put into a pyramid shaped cone made of banana leaves, along with a filling of seasoned pork, wood ear mushrooms and a quail egg. The banana leaves are folded origami style to seal up the cone into a pyramid shape and then the pyramid is steamed.
Online sources say that Banh Gio originated in Northern Vietnam and got their name because they were made by Vietnamese charcutier who make the mortadella like pork sausage called gio. Banh is a generic Vietnamese term for foods made with flours, legumes and starches, so Banh Gio.
The Dumplings: I discovered that I am not a huge fan of the texture of the rice batter, it was like eating a lot of the wrapper from an over cooked crystal shrimp dumpling. But the flavor was amazing, lots of porky goodness along with an infusion of mild tea flavor from the banana leaf wrapper. The pork filling was loosely ground and mixed with strips of wood ear mushroom and had lots of flavors, I’m guessing it was cooked with aromatics and maybe soy or oyster sauce. Pork flavor had also infused into the white of the quail egg, which took the egg to 11. I asked if they make the Banh Gio in house and was told they do not, but instead get them from an older woman in the neighborhood who home cooks them.
The location: Café Cuong is on 8th street, just above Christian Street, in an area sometimes referred to as Bella Vista and also referred to as the Italian Market neighborhood (it is one block East of the Market). Also since, further south on 8th street there is the Little Saigon neighborhood, it could also be thought of as the northern reaches of Little Saigon. Café Cuong is currently doing take-out only and given its size, in the before times I am sure it didn’t seat many people. So I recommend taking your Banh Gio and Banh Mi to the park on Catherine street, it is just a half-block north of the Café.
(Sorry the pix of the Banh Gio are not my strongest work. Threw in one of their Banh Mi too)