Children of Vietnamese Immigrants Evolve Their Ancestral Cuisines to Impact Acadiana
The first Vietnamese immigrant-exiles came to the United States in 1975, following the fall of Saigon. Catholic Charities relocated many to areas outlying New Orleans where inexpensive housing, a subtropical climate and an established fishing industry welcomed the permanent settlement of thousands of families. At first, most settled in the Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans East and on the city’s West Bank.
Upon arriving, the Veietnamese immigrants took whatever work they could find, in factories, in the service industry or by doing odd jobs. As the group became more established, the first Vietnamese-owned restaurants and groceries began to open. Two generations later our Vietnamese brethren have forever impacted Louisiana’s culinary culture.
Dang Nguyen’s ancestors experienced a more circuitous path to their Louisiana home. In 1975, after piling into boats headed out of Vietnam for places unknown, they ended up in Thailand. Here they remained for 10 years until relatives in Los Angeles sponsored them for relocation. Dang’s parents ultimately moved to Alexandria, in Central Louisiana. Ten years ago on a visit Dang — then a student living in Arizona — met his bride-to-be, Tam, who was then working at Tsunami sushi restaurant in Lafayette, where the two ultimately made their home.
In 2011, Dang and his brother-in-law, Chris Nguyen, who settled in Lafayette by way of Hawaii, opened Saigon Noodles, an inexpensive and unassuming pho and bahn mi joint on Ambassador Caffery Parkway. They offered generous portions and thrifty prices for soul-warming foods that were then-still-exotic to the area. With a background in construction and business, Chris designed and built the restaurant while Dang focused on designing a menu and heading up the kitchen.
“While Saigon Noodles was under construction we learned there was another Vietnamese restaurant under construction,” Dang says, “So we opened at just about the same time.”
A trend was born.
So robust was their success that, in 2012, the Nguyens opened a second location in Baton Rouge. By 2014, they were ready to undertake opening a more ambitious second venture in downtown Lafayette.
Since its opening, Blu Basil has been a hotspot for the beautiful people, merging an array of traditional Vietnamese classics (thin, crispy, savory Vietnamese crepes filled with pork, bean sprouts and onions to be eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with pickled carrots and cucumber then dipped in nuoc cham sauce) with other Asian-influenced dishes with American rifts (grilled Bugolgi beef nachos with crab and avocado). Waterfall glass sets the mood at the entryway and the striking décor, dramatic lighting and a strong craft cocktail program create a very adult tone making it an easy choice for a successful date or a night out with friends. The depth of the menu ensures enough selections to appease everyone including vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians who eschew other forms of animal protein.
House favorites include Pork Belly Sliders (steamed Vietnamese buns, braised pork belly and Asian slaw), Shaken Beef (stir-fried tender steak cubes with sweet onion, bell pepper and fried egg) and the Dang Rib-eye (grilled rib-eye steak with housemade citrus-y Blu Basil sauce with white rice, asparagus and zucchini).
Future plans for the successful family duo include the expansion of Saigon Noodles into a regional brand based on locally-sourced ingredients.
|Blu Basil 5451 Johnston St. Lafayette • 337-456-1120 • blubasilwineandgrill.com
Rock-n-Sake Bar & Sushi 107 Stonemont Road, Lafayette • 337-408-8920 • rocknsake.com
Saigon Noodles 2865 Ambassador Caffery Parkway, Lafayette • 337-456-3317 • saigonnoodleslafeyette.com
Known for its funky vibe and vast menu, New Orleans based Rock-N-Sake recently opened an outpost in Lafayette’s River Ranch neighborhood. The sushi deviled eggs and Rainbow Seafood Salad are not to be missed. The latter combines tuna, yellowtail, salmon and crabstick with cucumber, avocado, tomatoes, smelt roe, green onions and Ponzu sauce for a virtuous take that seems decadent.
April and May are my favorite months of the year. The days are getting longer, the temperatures are mild and the landscape is in full greening mode. It’s an ideal time to dine on the patio or deck, in the backyard by the pool or under the whirling ceiling fans on a wide, screened-in porch.
Home gardeners tend to their tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and an abundance of warm-weather herbs like basil, thyme, mint, parsley and rosemary. I can usually count on the vendors at the local farmers’ markets to supply me with what I don’t have in my garden, such as Louisiana strawberries and blueberries. (I pick blackberries along my neighbor’s fence line, with his permission, of course.)
This time of year is also the season when I remember our family outings at our camp on Catahoula Lake near the Atchafalaya Basin. The yearly ritual found Mama and Papa heading out to the lake on the Monday before Easter Sunday. It was up to my siblings and me to clean out the flowerbeds and rake the carpet of leaves to the corner of the property where Papa’s worm bed thrived in the compost.
Zinnias, petunias and impatiens provided colorful accents here and there among the centuries-old oak trees, willows and pecan trees. Elephant ears and palms shaded the rustic terrace that Mama and Aunt Lois laid out years ago and was surrounded by wild ferns and palmetto plants.
It was the food, however, that really brought all of us together for weekend gatherings and informal parties. There were fish fries, barbecues, seafood boils and the annual Father’s Day fried chicken cook-off that pitted Papa and my brothers against the sons-in-law and male cousins who tried, year after year, to best Papa and his group.
Mama was the queen of potato salad with homemade mayonnaise and she also reigned over the homemade ice cream. My sister was in charge of having several watermelons iced down in ice chests (every Sunday). I was in charge of setting the mood. That was easy enough. There was always music, even if it meant wearing down the batteries in Papa’s truck. Colorful tablecloths covered the picnic tables (unless they were covered with newspaper for the seafood boils). Hanging baskets of ferns attached to trellises and tree branches swayed in the breeze.
Alas, the camp is no more, and Papa and Mama are gone, but I can boast of a lovely yard in a rural area of St. Martin Parish on the banks of Bayou Teche where we (along with our ever-growing family) can gather to share a meal.
Of course, we always turn to our parents’ menus and recipes that never fail to please our palates. These are very simple and basic, but certainly delicious. Feel free to kick them up as you wish.
Papa’s Barbecued Chicken
This will not work on a grill — do this on a real barbecue pit (fired with charcoal or wood) that has a lid.
3 plump fryers, each about
3 pounds, cut in half
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning mix
2 sticks margarine
1 bottle (6-ounces) hot sauce
Rub the chicken well with the seasoning mix. In a small saucepan melt the margarine and add the hot sauce. Put the chickens on the pit and baste frequently with the sauce. Be sure to turn the chickens about every 20 minutes, but keep the lid closed in between. The chickens will take about 2 ½ hours to cook.
Makes 6 servings
Mama never chilled the salad. The potatoes and eggs were at room temperature. The mayonnaise was chilled for about an hour or so, then immediately added to the salad right before serving.
3-4 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed
8 eggs hard-boiled, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup minced celery
¼ cup finely chopped green onions
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
In a pot, boil potatoes in lightly salted water until tender. Remove from heat and drain. Cool.
Put the eggs in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat, cover saucepan and let sit for 15 minutes. Drain, cool and peel. Chop eggs and potatoes.
Transfer chopped potatoes and eggs in a large serving bowl. Mama put them in layers, i.e., a layer of potatoes, a layer of eggs, a bit of seasoning, then continued the layering until all was used. Add mayonnaise and whatever condiments you wish and toss gently (so as not to break up the potatoes) to mix.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
MY FRIEND MATT’S TARTAR SAUCE
Papa’s Fried Catfish
3 pounds catfish fillets salt and cayenne to taste
¾ cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup milk
1½ cups vegetable oil
1 medium-size yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced (separate into rings)
Rinse catfish in cool water and pat dry. Season the fish generously with salt and cayenne. Combine flour and cornmeal in a shallow bowl and season with salt and cayenne. In another shallow dish, pour milk.
Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet to about 360 degrees. Dip catfish, two to three at a time, in the milk, then dredge in cornmeal mixture, tapping off any excess. Let sit for about one minute, then fry (two to three pieces at a time) in the hot oil. Cook for about three minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Scatter several onion rings over the fish as they cook and squeeze lemon juice over them. Repeat the steps until all the fish is cooked.
Serve warm with tartar sauce.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Mama’s Ice Cream
Use fruits such as peaches, strawberries, or bananas and toss them with ¼ cup rum or bourbon to prevent the fruit from freezing too hard.
6 eggs, beaten
4 cups milk
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups chopped fruit
In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla. Stirring constantly, cook until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat. Chill in refrigerator for two hours then add fruit.
Remove from the ‘fridge and add the fruit. Freeze in an ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s directions.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
FOR THE FISH AND TARTAR SAUCE: Rather than frying fillets of the catfish, you can cut the fillets into strips, each about 3 inches by 1 inch. When cut in this fashion, the fried fish can serve as an appetizer course — a wonderful finger food for a casual gathering. Be sure to pass the tartar sauce around as well.
FOR MAMA'S POTATO SALAD: Rather than chopping the hardboiled egg, make it an easier task by grating the hardboiled eggs on the large hole side of a box grater. This is a big time saver when having to chop dozens of eggs.
FOR MAMA'S ICE CREAM: Fresh peaches, strawberries and bananas are great to add to the homemade ice cream. Around July 4th, when figs are at their peak, soak peeled figs in Grand Marnier before adding it to the ice cream mixture.