Cooking instructor Marti Miller asked for a show of hands asking how many of her students had eaten at the old Vietnamese Restaurant at Franklin and Curtis roads.
Nearly every hand at a recent Boise schools community education class went up.
Her mother, Nhu Lofstedt, operated the popular restaurant for nearly a quarter-century before she died in 2000. The restaurant was later sold in 2002 to Dat and Hien Vuong and their partner, Kim Li, who ran it until the building caught fire in 2010.
“It makes me feel really good that people appreciate my mom and remember my mom. She’s gone but not forgotten,” Miller said.
The popular eatery, set in a strip mall behind what was then a 7-11 store on the corner, attracted a long stream of patrons who ate Nhu’s egg rolls, spring rolls, soups and stir-fried dishes. It was the first Vietnamese restaurant in town and may have been the first Asian spot that didn’t feature a Chinese menu.
At the evening class, held at Timberline High School, Miller taught a group of about 20 students how to make cha gio — Vietnamese egg rolls. They were the most popular item sold at the restaurant. Customers at eight out of 10 tables ordered cha gio, according to a 1996 Idaho Statesman story.
Unlike Chinese egg rolls, which are wrapped in a skin made from flour and eggs, the Vietnamese version gets wrapped in a paper shell made from rice. That makes them thinner and lighter.
Miller’s recipe combines ground pork, shrimp, jicama, onions, carrots, wood ear mushrooms and bean thread noodles, along with eggs, salt, pepper and sugar.
The dried wood ear mushrooms and bean thread noodles, found at local Asian markets such as the Asia Market on Fairview Avenue or the Orient Market on Emerald Street, get soaked for 10 minutes in hot tap water. They’re combined with the other ingredients and rolled up in the rice paper, which is dipped in water to soften, and then fried in oil.
The rolls are served hot with an easily made dipping sauce. It uses fish sauce, made from fermented anchovies, which scares off many cooks because of its strong fishy smell. However, when combined with other ingredients, it loses the unpleasant aroma and adds a flavorful complexity to the sauce and when used in other dishes.
When she cooks, Miller, who works as a civil engineer for the state of Idaho, doesn’t use precise measurements. She told the students to feel free to improvise.
“What I put here, you can adjust plus or minus. It doesn’t have to be absolute, like baking,” Miller said.
Besides the egg roll and spring roll classes, Miller also taught community education students recently how to make won tons and won ton soup. She plans to repeat those classes and add a couple of new ones in future sessions.
Miller was born in Vietnam and spent the first 10 years of her life there before her mom sent her and her sister and brother to Seattle for schooling as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War heightened.
Her father had been killed a few years earlier, a casualty of the war. Her mother found work in a laundry and met Gunnar Lofstedt, an engineer with the Boise-based Morrison-Knudsen Corp. They married and later left South Vietnam, right before the fall in 1975.
Nhu found a job with Grasmick Produce in Garden City and obtained Asian vegetables then unknown in Idaho. She began selling some of those items from her living room to new Vietnamese immigrants and later opened a small store that led to her opening the restaurant.
Boise resident Connie Spofford said she was glad to learn to make the egg rolls her family had enjoyed for years.
She said Miller provided excellent instruction and she enjoyed hearing about Nhu and her background.
“The instruction was good. It was well organized and it certainly tasted good,” Spofford said.
“It was our favorite restaurant. We always ordered these every time we went. Once in a while we didn’t order anything else,” Spofford said.
Micki Butler of Boise had taken an earlier spring roll class from Miller. She came back for the egg roll class and brought her daughter, Stacy Kral.
“Marti always has the most hands-on instruction and that’s how you learn,” Butler said.
Kral said she also enjoyed that part of the class.
“We actually got to do it ourselves and then sampled the food. There was even enough leftovers to take home,” she said.
John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell. John used to work at the 7-11 store at Franklin and Curtis and store workers often sent someone over to bring back egg rolls and other dishes from the Vietnamese Restaurant. He has fond memories of the restaurant and Miller’s relatives who worked there.
Marti Miller will teach a July 6 class on spicy chicken and fried rice at the Meridian location of the Boise Co-Op.
Marti Miller and her daughters, Alaina and Jamie, also produce Marti’s Salsa. It started as a way for the girls to earn spending money and cash for college. It is available at the Eagle farmers market, at select Albertsons stores in Boise, at Stonehenge “The Barn” Produce on Fairview Avenue and at the Boise Co-Op in Boise and Meridian.
Vietnamese egg rolls (cha gio)
Makes: 20 to 25 egg rolls. Prep time: 45 minutes. Total time: 90 minutes
1 lb. ground pork
1/4 pound shrimp, minced or ground in a food processor
1 medium jicama, shredded
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1/4 cup wood ear mushroom, soaked
1/2 cup bean thread noodle, soaked and cut
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 package (25 pieces) rice paper
Soak the dried wood ear mushrooms and bean thread noodles in hot tap water. Soak for 10 minutes and drain in colander. Using kitchen scissors, cut noodles into pieces one to two inches long. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground pork, onions, mushrooms, jicama, carrots, salt and pepper. Add the noodles and mushrooms and mix until thoroughly combined. Do not overmix, as it will become too dense. Use your hands or a fork to gently mix together.
Microwave a tablespoon of the mixture for about 30 seconds and taste the filling. Adjust seasoning to your taste.
Dip the rice paper in cool water for a few seconds. Drain and set on cutting board.
Place about two tablespoons of filling onto the edge of the wrapper and roll once. Fold in the sides and continue to roll.
Fill a heavy pot with about 2 1/2 inches of vegetable oil and heat to 350 degrees. Fry in small batches until golden brown, five to six minutes, turning as needed. Place on cooling rack
Notes: Do not overfill and roll as tightly as possible. Otherwise, the rice paper could open up while cooking. Do not allow the rolls to touch each other while cooking or they will stick together. Rice paper will never brown as dark as flour-based wrappers.
In Vietnam, egg rolls are served wrapped in a lettuce leaf topped with cucumber, cilantro and mint. Dip in dipping sauce.
Dipping sauce (nuoc cham)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon rice or plain vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1 jalapeno or other hot pepper
3 cloves garlic, or to taste
1/8 cup fish sauce, or to taste
Add water and sugar over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Turn off heat.
Add lime juice and vinegar. It should taste like a bland lime-ade.
Crush the garlic and chiles together and add to the mixture.
Slowly add the fish sauce a few tablespoons at a time.
For a spicier sauce, add some chile garlic sauce. Pickled carrots and daikon are traditional additions for the sauce.