Smooth egg rolls wrapped in wonton wrapper, and bumpy egg rolls wrapped in rice paper
I'm not sure which happened first. Did we drive into City Heights because we had a craving for egg rolls? Or did the urge arise because we realized how close we already were to Á Châo?
4644 El Cajon Boulevard #111, San Diego
Regardless, it wasn't long before we'd pulled into the little counter shop's cramped shared parking lot in the Little Saigon stretch of El Cajon Boulevard. It's easy to miss if you're not looking for it. A lot of these little shopping strips here have similar look, with faded stucco facades and restaurant names spelled with the diacritic characters distinct to the Vietnamese alphabet.
Á Châu is among several affordable stops for authentic bánh mì in the neighborhoods, but the modest, cash only restaurant was first introduced to me as a must try source of egg rolls. I had enough cash on hand to pick up a couple of ham, meat loaf, and pate sandwiches — they're only about five bucks apiece. But most of it was earmarked for the 95- and 85-cent egg rolls. Twenty of them.
Another storefront in a faded stucco shopping strip in Little Saigon
The difference in price has to do with the difference in wrappers: one is fried within a wonton wrapper, the other with rice paper. Both are stuffed with thick portions of minced pork and light veggies, but the wonton wrapper is slightly bigger, meaning room for more filler, and hence the extra dime.
We always get both, because int heir very slight differences, they each have their own merits. However, if pressed to choose I would have to call the smaller, rice paper wrapped egg rolls better. The rice paper crisps up nicer when fried, cracking and flaking with air bubbles. It gives them a bumpier, almost crumbly look — they almost seem oder, like they've been sitting around for a while.
An authentic, five dollar banh mi, with carrots, daikon, cucumber, cilantro, ham, Vietnamese meat loaf, and pork pate
But that's unlikely. Even as I wait in line to order, people are ordering Á Châu egg rolls by the dozen. Most, like me, seem to order examples of both, but whether due to the difference in price or texture, I don't seem to be the only one who prefers the rice paper version.
At least, I prefer them when Im in the store, filled with what I think at the time must be an insatiable craving. I bring the 20 rolls home — they must weigh several pounds — thinking everyone will spend the afternoon fighting over who eats the last disappearing egg rolls on the plate. But I've overestimated everyone's appetite, and I find it too easy to keep eating them myself. How many was it? Eight? Ten? One or two more than that?
A socially distanced line inside cash-only City Heights restaurant Á Châo
Again, I can't be sure of the exact count. But my overstuffed belly, groaning at the weight of my indulgence, tells me in no uncertain terms it should be less next time. For about an hour there, I'm cursing the name Á Châu, and swearing off its egg rolls forever.
Then, the moment passes, and the countdown begins til the next craving returns. If anyone's heading into Little Saigon, pick me up a few.