It’s hard to think of a food that has achieved greater upward mobility — at least here in Japan — than goi cuon, those delectable, rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls that almost single-handedly define Vietnamese cuisine. Over the past decade, they have moved out of the minority ghetto of back-street ethnic restaurants and into the cash-flush watering holes of the cultural mainstream.
We are the first to applaud, now that nama harumaki (as they are known in Japanese) can be found on the menus at trendy Harajuku cafes, the swish, late-night dining bars of Azabu, and even some of the city’s more adventurous izakaya. But at regular intervals we do like to journey back to the source, to remind ourselves how they’re made in the markets of their homeland.
Time and budget constraints preclude frequent flights to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. But a highly acceptable alternative is just to ride the subway down to Yotsuya Sanchome, to Thien Phuoc, one of the friendliest, funkiest Vietnamese eateries in all of Tokyo.
It’s a humble place, hidden away inside a nondescript building and reached by a short flight of well-patinated stairs covered in aging brown linoleum. Inside, though, Thien Phuoc is clean and tidy, its walls adorned with tasteful prints and (inevitably) a map of the motherland. Too spacious to be called a hole in the wall, yet too basic to qualify as a full-fledged restaurant, Thie^n Phuoc is just right for a quick snack or a no-frills dinner of honest, home-cooked Saigon street food.
The staff (all three of them) are from Vietnam, so you know straight away you’ll be in good hands. And this confidence is borne out as soon as your first order of goi cuon arrives, laid out attractively on a small bamboo tray. Plump and delicate, and made to order, they are an object lesson in how spring rolls should be prepared.
The rice-paper wrappings are reconstituted to just the right degree of softness and rolled firmly around plenty of good ingredients — slivers of cooked pork, clear harusame noodles, matchsticks of cucumber and a spear of dark green spring onion, with the pink of a small shrimp just visible through the translucent outer layer. Dunk them in the red, piquant sauce and revel in the combination of flavors, so simple yet so satisfying. Then order another batch on the spot.
While you’re at it, get the kitchen working on an order of cha-gio, too. If anything, these deep-fried spring rolls (age-harumaki on the Japanese-only, but helpfully illustrated menu) are even more delectable. Unlike the long, fat, cigar-size spring rolls served at many other Saigon restaurants, those at Thie^n Phuoc are small, crisp tubes the size of your little finger, which are served on a platter with an array of salad greens.
You take a leaf of lettuce, place a cha-gio in the middle, along with some cucumber and shiso leaf, roll it all up,then anoint it with the accompanying sauce. Again, it’s a superb interaction of texture and flavors: the crunchy outer layer of the spring roll; the rush of juicy meat inside; the softness of the lettuce; the aromatic taste of shiso; the spicy tang of the sauce. It is a classic.
At this point, we are often quite happy just to have a bowl of their excellent noodles (try the spicy Hue-style beef pho) or soft-cooked kayu rice, and then leave replete. But there are plenty of other dishes to tempt you to make a full meal of it.
We enjoy the banh xeo (listed as okonomiyaki on the menu). It is a large, crisp, yellow crepe, filled with a thick stew of cooked meat and bean sprouts. Another favorite is the sui-gyoza, steamed rolls of thick, white rice-flour dough stuffed with minced pork and shreds of black kikurage fungi, garnished with squares of bright pink processed meat the consistency of spam.
If you want to be authentic, then you should wash this all down with bottles of Saigon Beer or Bababa (333) in cans, or even the wicked local hooch known as Nep Moi, much like shochu but cheaper. On our most recent visit, we found they now stock some basic wines, including a South African Riesling. Served in small bistro-style glasses without the benefit of an ice bucket, nonetheless it added an extra element of enjoyment to this unpretentious and highly gratifying food.