Vietnamese cuisine has a well-established presence here, largely in part to the vibrant Vietnamese community in Eastern New Orleans. Yet until recently a defining characteristic of many restaurants was that they were short on atmosphere but big on taste. That is changing as a slew of Vietnamese (and Vietnamese-inspired) places have recently opened their doors.
Ambiance, sophisticated drinks and more expressive menus are the hallmarks. Purists may scoff at these interlopers, insisting that dollar-for-dollar you still can’t beat the original strip mall pho joints – and they have a point – but for those seeking variety and a little bit of charm, the options have never been better.
Namese Vietnamese Café, a former convenience store reinvented as a restaurant, anchors the corner of Tulane and Carrollton avenues. It is set back from the street, which creates parking as well as a buffer from traffic. Inside the build-out is contemporary and tasteful, and a small patio offers al fresco seating at the foot of the revitalizing Tulane Avenue corridor.
“The same family has owned this location for over 20 years,” says chef Nhat Nguyen, a graduate of Delgado’s culinary arts program, about his new restaurant. “They saw that everybody down the street was changing and they wanted to change, too, and help to transform the neighborhood.”
Namese is first and foremost a Vietnamese restaurant. “I don’t consider it fusion; we make Vietnamese the forefront,” says Nguyen. “Our beef broth for the pho is darker than some other places because we cook it down so long, over 24 hours.” The result is a comparatively richer, fuller flavor. They also make a vegan version that swaps out dried mushrooms for the beef and makes use of daikon, celery, carrots and cabbage, and omits the fish sauce.
Namese is at its most satisfying with dishes such as the Sticky Sweet Ribs, a staple of Nguyen’s own family table. Pork ribs are braised in a sauce of soy, ginger, pepper and Nuoc Mam until tender. They are removed and the sauce is reduced to a glaze, which is then used to finish the ribs. The caramelized result is a wonder of sweetness and complexity. Another family dish he recreates is the Crabby Crab, which his father (a fisherman) would often make growing up. This one includes cracked crab, garlic and crab roe. Nguyen’s version is more akin to a dressing that he ladles over rice. “Mine actually looks more like an étouffée because I use onions and bell pepper. The roe is the important ingredient.”
That the sauce bears some resemblance to an étouffée is the key to Namese’s distinctiveness. “What I really want to do is put those traditional, home cooked Vietnamese flavors out there. Maybe on a different platform, but the important thing is to stay honest to that flavor profile.” You see this in dishes such as their Ducky Cuban and boudin balls, both of which shoot Vietnamese flavors into non-Vietnamese compositions.
In Uptown, Mint Modern Vietnamese Bistro & Bar joins the crowd of new eateries occupying Freret Street. Owned by chef Jimmy Tran, Mint adds a bar scene and craft cocktail component to the mix. “Mint is a different style of place than other Vietnamese places,” Tran says. “In a lot of those places you sit and eat and go, while here you can have a cocktail and chill out in a nice neighborhood. Socializing is a big part of it.” The attractive space offers lots of natural light and a clean, contemporary look.
The core of the menu is Vietnamese – you’ll find the usual lineup of banh mi like lemongrass chicken on bread from Dong Phuong bakery, along with pho and vermicelli bowls. But it does diverge, taking a fusion-y twist with items such as the Kim Chi Burger, dressed with its namesake spicy Korean pickled cabbage and the Fried Chicken & Green Waffle. Both dishes have proved popular in the short time Mint has been open, along with a few others. “The sticky chicken wings are hot right now,” says Tran. “A lot of people also order the healthier stuff like the avocado or tofu rolls.” A broader net is also cast with dishes like his wonton soup with barbecue pork.
The drink menu is a big part of the draw. Classics such as the Sazerac are offered, along with a growing list of craft cocktails. Going into April look for a happy hour featuring drink specials, as well as a short-list of small plates.
One of the more anticipated restaurant openings of 2014 was Michael Gulotta’s MoPho. Formerly Chef de Cuisine at August, chef Gulotta left to open his own place tucked into a strip mall near Delgado with the help of his brother, Jeff, who serves as the General Manager. Gulotta’s bold menu is confident, weaving Vietnamese and south Louisiana-style cuisines together into compositions that sometimes elevate it into the realm of fine dining, although MoPho isn’t a white-tablecloth type of place. It is upscale casual, with a vibrant bar, patio seating and decidedly relaxed feel.
Highlights from a recent meal there included crispy chicken wings in a sticky-sweet sauce redolent of lemongrass and ginger, their gorgeous mahogany color offset with bright ribbons of herbs. A dish of Cedar Key Clams in a light coconut broth spiked with pepper jelly came with annatto-scented “beignets” – shaped more like breadsticks and reminding me a bit of churros. My only gripe was that we didn’t have more of them to mop up the sauce.
An array of poor boys offers lunch at a competitive price, with roast duck as one option. For the pho, a mix-and-max matrix allows you to assemble your own from selecting different broth and protein options. Some of the brawnier options include coxcomb, red-pepper braised tripe and headcheese. Vegetarian versions can be cobbled together as well. Pho is reasonably priced for either lunch or dinner service, between $7 and $9. Price points do rise for the dinner menu entrées.
On the Beat
At State and Magazine streets, Noodle and Pie, right, offers an eclectic culinary mashup with a focus more on Japanese ramen (the noodles are made in-house) along with a tempting menu of small plates, like their clay pot pork belly. Lilly’s Café on lower Magazine Street offers traditional Vietnamese fare such as pho and spring rolls along with its wonderfully warm service.
Find Your Favorite
Namese Vietnamese Café
4077 Tulane Ave.
Lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays
Mint Modern Vietnamese Bistro & Bar
5100 Freret St.
Lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays
514 City Park Ave.
Lunch and dinner Wednesdays through Mondays
Noodle and Pie
741 State St.
1813 Magazine St.
Lunch and dinner, Mondays through Saturdays