A grilled beef pho roll and Vietnamese sausage spring roll
Every time I’ve eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant with a group, deciding on appetizers has become a whole discussion. Should we get spring rolls, or egg rolls? How many? Tofu or pork? Shrimp or sweet sausage? Sometimes, I’ve had to wonder if we’re even there for the entrees at all.
420 Robinson Ave, San Diego
Well, good news for those who are mainly in it for the rolls — they are the main focus at Hillcrest restaurant Goi Cuon. As its name suggests, the concept starts with all manner of gỏi cuốn, which most of us have seen on a menu as spring rolls, summer rolls, or salad rolls: some sort of protein wrapped up in rice paper with leafy herbs, lettuce, and vermicelli rice noodles.
The vegan combo #4: egg roll, crispy tofu, dumpling, soup, tea, vegan crepes roll, and spring roll with avocado, pickled carrot, and sesame seeds
The restaurant Goi Cuon makes — count ‘em — 15 different types of spring rolls. At three bucks apiece, choosing is half the fun. You’ve got your standby options: crispy tofu, shrimp, and a choice of grilled beef, chicken, or pork. If you’re into shrimp, there are further options to keep you coming back: sugarcane shrimp and even shrimp with strawberry! The house “special” gỏi cuốn combines shrimp and pork, and wraps a vegan egg roll right into the center.
A farmers market booth turned restaurant in Hillcrest
That vegan egg roll is no outlier. Five of the spring rolls are vegan, including crispy tofu and avocado, and bean curd with the cracker-like “crispy snack” wrapped into it. My eyes kept drifting back to one with avocado, pickled carrot, and sesame roll. The intriguing choice happens to headline the number 4 combo, which is one of two vegan combo meals. For $9.99, it also includes a vegan egg roll, fried tofu, dumpling, soup, jasmine tea, and a crispy crepe roll.
Inside Goi Cuon
That’s right, there are yet more rolls to consider: vegan and shrimp “crepes rolls” ($3.75), which are like the spring rolls except with cucumber in place of noodles, and lightly fried to crisp the rice paper. The combo provides an easy way to sample a few rolls, along with the rather interesting soup, which is sort of a potato consommé swimming with diced daikon, apple, potato, and carrots.
The spicy peanut sauce served at Goi Cuon
I think I speak for all of us when I say part of the fun of eating rolls are the dipping sauces, and this place offers several. The friendly woman taking my order at the counter explained how each roll tastes best with a different sauce. The sweet and sour nuoc cham is the usual go-to for the egg rolls — no surprise. But the creamy, vegan coconut sauce offered with the crepes roll was new to me, and definitely made the roll better.
As for the spring rolls, always default to peanut sauce. Goi Cuon’s peanut sauce especially, as it comes loaded with chili paste, shredded carrots, sesame seeds, and more. I wanted to try some meatier rolls as well, and my friend behind the counter suggested the Vietnamese sausage, which goes into the roll with some of that “crispy snack.” It was no less enjoyable than the vegan roll with that peanut sauce.
But the biggest winner for me was yet another roll offering: the pho roll ($3). Featuring meat, tofu, shrimp, or omelet, these rolls include lettuce, basil, cilantro, cucumber, and avocado. But where the phở connection comes in is that they’re not wrapped in rice paper, but with wide rice noodles. Because the noodle is soft and wet, they serve this one chopped into pieces. For the same reason, biting into the beef pho roll was pretty much like eating a bite of phở without the broth. Which doesn’t explain why I was instructed to dip it in the coconut sauce, but it was delicious, so I won’t question.
Some may recognize Goi Cuon from the Hillcrest and other farmers markets. Six months into its tenure at a permanent address, they do serve bánh mì and noodle salads — it’s not all rolls. But there are certainly enough rolls to keep you coming back. And there are more on the way! I’m told curry-flavored rolls are coming to the menu soon.