It didn't take long for me to learn what the main attraction is at A-Chau in City Heights. When it was my turn to order, I sheepishly stammered that I didn't know what to pick. A guy next to me paused from double-knotting his takeout bag and blurted two words: "egg rolls."
Located in the newly branded Little Saigon district (4644 El Cajon Blvd), A-Chau is a family-run Vietnamese eatery that sells nearly 5,000 egg rolls a day. The mom-and-son joint offers two varieties: the traditional Vietnamese kind, prepared with rice paper, and the wonton-wrapped Chinese version. Unlike its Chinese counterpart, the Vietnamese cha giò boasts a wrinkled, uneven exterior, which makes it fabulously crunchy. Additional Vietnamese specialties on the A-Chau menu include broken rice and bánh mì sandwiches.
A tired strip mall, home to a cluster of boxy, nondescript suites, houses A-Chau; its corner spot is easy to miss. The interior—with plastic, Cheetos-orange chairs and forlorn wire shelves stocked with potato-chip bags—screams "fast food!"
But that's about all A-Chau shares in common with the Subway down the street. Owner Don Lam says that nearly every item on the extensive menu is made in-house. The French rolls and baked sweets are secured through wholesalers, but the mayonnaise and barbecued meats flavoring the bánh mì sandwiches are whipped up in the back kitchen. Lam helms the front counter while his mother oversees the cooking. It's been this way since 1993.
On an early Sunday evening, an hour before closing time, A-Chau felt decently busy, and nearly everyone in line was awaiting egg rolls. The deep-fried morsels are inexpensive: 55 cents for the rice-paper rolls and 70 cents for the wonton variety. I ordered two of each, along with several other treats, and tried settling comfortably into one of the legless, spinning chairs. It wasn't easy.
A few minutes later, Lam handed me a small paper bag bumpy with egg rolls. There were no plates in sight and no utensils, either. I suddenly realized why the tables around me were empty. Still, I shuddered at the thought of egg rolls slowly steaming inside their paper bags during my drive home.
Eat the egg rolls while they're fresh and snappy—that's when you'll get a loud, clean crunch with each bite. A mild pork-and-carrot mixture fills each morsel; elevate the flavor with a few bright squirts of Sriracha. I get why A-Chau's egg rolls draw crowds: Your jangling pocket change will buy a few, and, more importantly, they're delicious.
Though not as resplendent, the sugar-cane shrimp rolls are worth a try. Ground shrimp gets combined with garlic, shallots and sugar, and is then formed into a sausage-like lump. A wonton-wrapped leek adds generous crunch, and the spring-roll wrapper cocooning the whole thing tacks on a textural layer. The delicate balance of flavors and textures makes for a refreshing snack, but I still say go for the egg rolls.