One of the more heartening developments to emerge in the local dining scene during the pandemic is the emergence of Union Street between Raymond and Fair Oaks as a bustling strip of small buzzing restaurants.   

On the north side of the street, the city has created outdoor dining lanes with barricades, as also found on Colorado Boulevard and Green Street. These lanes largely service patrons of renowned, high-end pasta mecca, Union, as well as French bistro newcomer Perle, which opened at the start of the pandemic lockdown in March (PW 8/13).

That said, it’s the south side of Union, where the real action seems to be—Dirt Dog for bacon-wrapped hot dogs, Main Chick for hot chicken, CHA Redefine for exotic chai tea drinks and now, most recently, Paper Rice for custom-wrapped spring rolls and banh mi sandwiches.

Paper Rice staged a “soft” opening on August 15 and formally opened August 28. It adds variety, dimension and even more deliciousness to the bustling one-block strip that has become a new mini-hub of dining in Old Town.

How is it that, as we now regularly witness the sad demise of local favorites, that new ambitious dining operations choose to open in the midst of a pandemic? For Paper Rice, plans to open in the spring had been long in the making.

“It started over a year ago, when we bought into this project,” says Jens Kristen, 50, the co-partner and ostensible general manager at Paper Rice.

“We had no idea what was going to happen.”

Kristen goes on to explain that the series of storefronts on the south side of Union Street are operated as part of One Colorado, Old Town’s outdoor plaza of shops and restaurants, just across Fair Oaks. The developer designed each of the storefront spaces specifically to accommodate small fast-casual restaurant operations. The local mini-chain, Simple Things outlet, just west of Paper Rice, will soon be supplanted by the fifth new location of popular Tacos 1986, and there appears to be one vacant space on the strip still available.

How did Kristen, a mathematician born in Munich and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil (he also teaches math and statistics at PCC), come to supervise one of Pasadena’s newest cafes, specializing in Vietnamese spring rolls and sandwiches? The experience of his wife and partner Lee Diep can provide the answer to that question. The concept’s creator, Diep brings family recipes and real authenticity to the food at Paper Rice. The Diep family arrived in Alhambra from Quy Nhon in central Vietnam in the mid-1980s. Lee’s older brother owned and operated the popular Dip’s Grill in Alhambra, so the food business runs in the family. 

Kristen met Diep at the Urth Café on Colorado seven years ago. He was working for Yahoo, with offices at the Parsons building. During that time, he began to notice the lack of decent fast-casual dining options in Old Town.

“[There was] never a quick lunch opportunity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Diep began noodling—as it were—on her spring roll concept. According to Kristen, when Diep was growing up and there were leftovers from a previous meal, “(They would) bring out the rice paper and roll it up.” Rather than serving preset, traditionally composed spring rolls, why not provide lists of ingredient options and allow the guest to customize their own creations?

The main event is the “build-your-meal” option, where, for $10.25, you choose either an order of three spring rolls or a “Spring Bowl,” which is, essentially, a deconstructed spring roll assembled into a bowl format. By the way, you shouldn’t need me to exhort you to opt for the spring rolls.

For the spring rolls, a “base” of mixed greens or rice noodles gets you started. Next you choose a protein option—braised pork belly; charbroiled beef; lemongrass chicken; garlic shrimp (add $1); turmeric fish; soy garlic tofu; or, my favorite, Nem, Vietnamese pork sausage. You then choose four items from the list of vegetables and herbs. These include mint, basil, bean sprouts, bell peppers, scallions and jalapenos, as well as the ingredients of the recommended house spring mix of lettuce, cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrot and daikon.

Toppings to choose from are chopped peanuts, toasted sesame and fried garlic or onion bits. Finally, five sauces are offered—house citrus or spicy, savory peanut, citrus ginger or soy vinaigrette. Each of your three spring rolls may different with any of the ingredients and they all include a thin crispy stick of shrimp eggroll rolled in.

At each of my visits, the supremely affable and informed Ethan Ko, 25, gently guided me through the process of assembling my spring rolls. He also happens to be the eldest son of Diep—so trust his suggestions.

There are three other primary menu items to consider. The legendary Vietnamese street sandwich style Banh Mi is credibly represented here. For Banh Mi, the bread is half the sandwich. Served appropriately on a French baguette, Paper Rice’s version is generously portioned and provides a meal at $8.

The house special sauteed salad ($13) has already garnered positive critical notice, but it’s the Xoi Chien ($9) that provides the most interesting distraction from the spring rolls. These are fried and stuffed sticky rice patties. They are engorged with ground pork, shrimp, onion and wood ear mushrooms and served in pairs.

As Kristen explains, the Xoi Chien is the manifestation of an “Old family recipe handed down from the grandmother to the mother” in the Diep family. Any needy assurances of authenticity will be admirably assuaged by a bite of one of these.

Ironically, before the unexpected onset of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown on local businesses, there was some concern regarding the store’s street presence and relative visibility.

“Before the pandemic, I was a little worried,” Kristen said. “How are we going to get people to notice us?”

In fact, it was the advent of outdoor dining across the street that substantively boosted pedestrian traffic on the once-quiet block. If anything, the new interest in the dining strip and the proliferation of delivery cars has caused congestion.

“Police are stopping and giving tickets,” he said. For the intrepid and otherwise hapless enthusiast of Vietnamese street fare, there are two public lots in convenient walking distance of Union Street and the first 90 minutes are free.

A proper spring roll can provide lively, revivifying refreshment in the depths of our on-going autumn heatwaves. If you want something done right, do it yourself. As Kristen reminds us, at Paper Rice, “You roll it as you wish.”