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Oct 26, 2010
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Wine With . . . Thai Beef Lettuce Wraps

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

These tender, trendy little packages of ground beef wrapped in lettuce leaves are simple and quick to prepare, and indubitably delicious.  The wraps are equally suited to being served as informal family fare, or they can star as a fun, somewhat exotic, and decidedly inexpensive centerpiece dish at a party.  With holiday entertaining looming ahead, how about gathering a group of friends together and serving Thai wraps and fizz?  (As you’ll see below, a sparkling wine was our favorite.)  You can pop the cork on Champagne (check through archived reviews at Wine Review Online to find delicious and affordable selections), or serve Prosecco, Cava, Crémant, or (as we did) bubbly from California. 

Variations on the wrap theme are limitless.  Instead of ground beef, try ground chicken or turkey, or seared and thinly sliced flank steak.  Vegetarian variations might be based on cellophane or bean thread noodles. We usually use radishes for crunch when we make Thai wraps since they tend to be ubiquitous in our refrigerator, but water chestnuts or raw carrots are popular alternatives.  Boston lettuce, with its wide green leaves, is the traditional type of lettuce to use, but sturdier romaine or iceberg can work too.  (If there is a downside to this dish is that eating the wraps can be a messy proposition -- be sure to provide lots of napkins!) 

To serve as a party dish, mound the cooked meat mixture in the center of a large platter and surround it with the lettuce leaves (or serve the meat and lettuce in separate bowls).  Place bowls of sliced jalapeno, peanuts, and lime wedges on the table for garnishing the wraps.  Use the lettuce like a tortilla, spooning a little meat in the center of each leaf and rolling or folding it up burrito-style. 

Thai Beef Lettuce Wraps 

Serves two to four.

One pound ground beef

One small yellow or red onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

6 scallions, trimmed and sliced

3-4 radishes, sliced or coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon (or more, according to taste) Asian chili sauce, such as Sriracha

2 limes

¼ cup each minced fresh basil and mint

½ cup minced cilantro

6 scallions, trimmed and sliced


thinly sliced fresh jalapeno


extra chili sauce

lime wedges

In a large skillet, brown the beef, breaking it up as it cooks.  Add the onion and garlic and cook another five minutes, or until onion is tender.  (The dish may be made ahead to this point.)  To serve, reheat the meat; then stir in the scallions, radishes, fish sauce, chili, the juice of one lime (cut the other lime in wedges and use for garnish), and the basil and mint.  Continue cooking until thoroughly heated through.  Add the cilantro and serve immediately with lettuce leaves.  (To eat, place a spoonful of meat into a lettuce leaf, add garnish, and roll up).

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We tried a wide range of wines with this dish – reds and whites, wines with residual sugar and some that were bone dry, light-bodied ones and others much more robust and substantial – because we really had no idea which types would work best.  The wraps are meaty and a bit spicy, but the lime, herbs, and lettuce make them seem at the same time lively and fresh.  It’s a very tasty combination, but is it a wine-friendly one?

Well, yes and no.  We definitely found that some wines don’t work.  Light, delicate whites simply can’t hold their own, and wines whose charm comes from subtlety and nuance will be overwhelmed.  At the same time, you don’t want too much tannin or alcohol, as the spice in the dish makes even a faint impression of heat seem off-putting. 

The wine that we both thought worked best of those we tried (thirteen in all) was a sparkler.  The bubbles cut through the spice, but also served to convey an impression of seriousness.  It was a super match.  We’re recommending four other wines, all red, and each had its appeal.  We’re not convinced, though, that a fairly substantial, richly-flavored white couldn’t work as well.  We just didn’t happen to have a good one among the set we tried.



Approx. Price





Bonterra, Mendocino (California) “The Butler Single Vineyard Cuvée” 2007




A Rhône-styled blend, with a peppery edge in the finish, this wine appealed to us because it added an earthy note to the dish, counter-balancing the spice and sweet, pungent notes from the mint, basil, and cilantro.



Byron, Santa Maria Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2008





This Pinot offered just the right weight for this dish, being neither too light nor too heavy, but smooth and silky on the palate.  Texture constituted its primary appeal, and its clean red fruit flavors were a pleasant bonus.



Mumm Napa, Napa Valley (California) Blanc de Blancs 2006





As mentioned above, this made for a great match.  Some Blanc de Blancs are light and lacy on the palate.  This one, however, felt more substantial, with autumn fruit flavors and plenty of yeasty, bready secondary notes.  Simply delicious!



Peter Lehmann, Barossa (Australia) Shiraz 2008

(Imported by the Hess Collection.)






The juiciness of Barossa Shiraz made this a successful match, as the wine added a slightly sweet, sumptuous note that especially complemented the spicy meat filling.







Red Rock, California Merlot “Reserve” 2008







Very much fitting the same profile as the Shiraz recommended above, this California Merlot tasted juicy and fresh, with fruit flavors that echoed cherries and sweet plums.  It almost seemed like a sauce one might add to the wraps along with the other garnishes.