The first Vietnamese immigrant-exiles came to the Gulf Coast in 1975, following the fall of Saigon. Catholic charities, inexpensive housing and an established fishing industry welcomed the permanent settlement of thousands of families to the New Orleans area, most of them to the Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans East and the West Bank. Within a year the first Vietnamese-owned restaurants and groceries began to open. Two generations later our Vietnamese brethren have forever impacted New Orleans’ culinary culture.
They have also changed the way I treat a common cold.
I grew up nurturing the sniffles or a winter chill with bowls of Campbell’s, but this will no longer suffice. Today when I feel down I want a steaming bowl of fragrant phở loaded with fresh herbs. Like gumbo, phở varies with the cook’s provenance and preference. When a scratchy throat recently laid me low I called Lilly’s Cafe for a to-go order of phở gà (“chicken noodle soup”). Lilly’s clear, aromatic broth is laden with white and dark strips of meat and it’s slippery with piles of gossamer rice noodles. I like to jack up the heat (and clear my sinuses) by adding a big dose of garlic chili paste and a squeeze of lime juice.
The phở gà at Tân Định is cooked in the Hanoi style, its broth foggy with fat, and absent of the herbal notes found in Lilly’s more tropical soup. I went for the small bowl to leave room for some of the other items from the extensive menu: lemongrass-glazed fried chicken wings, charbroiled short ribs and roast quail served alongside deep-fried sweet and sticky rice cakes.
There is no phở to be had at Mr. Bubble Sandwich Shop, located in the charmless stripmall complex that houses the Hong Kong Market, but worth mentioning because the buttery avocado smoothies are every bit as restorative as any phở could ever be and the roast pork banh mi with pickled vegetables, avocado and bracing Sriracha mayonnaise on fresh bread that’s shatter-crisp on the outside and pudding-like on the inside is the kind of take-out that doesn’t make it out of the parking lot. Two of us dined like queens (in the car, but still) for less than $15. The staff at Mr. Bubbles is also exceedingly pleasant, so the overall combination of exceptional food, ridiculously low prices and a guaranteed good experience keep Mr. Bubbles on my list of Happy Places.
Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery & Restaurant, one of the area’s most storied old-line Vietnamese restaurants, doesn’t offer phở gà, but there are several varieties of beef phở on the menu. The bakery also sells vanilla cream puffs. For $1.25 they transport you to childhood: Every time you bite into the airy pate au choux dough the delicate confectionery cream oozes out over your fingers, obliging you to lick them between bites.
Given its close proximity to the university section and nary a Vietnamese neighborhood within miles, it came as no real surprise to find a tame phở gà that closely mimicked its American cousin at Mint Modern Vietnamese, but I would still head back for a bowl of the soul-warming soup when a chill strikes.
Sexy, cozy and romantic, perhaps no restaurant is more appropriate for Valentine’s Day than The Italian Barrel. The intimate French Quarter eatery specializes in the northern Italian cuisine chef/proprietor Samantha Castagnetti grew up eating and later cooking at her first restaurant in Verona. Cheeseboards are perfect for sharing and the cheeses aren’t served as dainty pads but in substantial slices, so there’s enough of each to experiment with accoutrements like chestnut oil and truffle-laced honey. Most are from northern Italy and the variety is impressive with creamy, hard, semisoft, pungent, gentle, subtle and assertive flavors all represented. Pastas are silky handmade pillows appearing as lasagna with Bolognese, ravioli with truffle cream and gnocchi with gorgonzola.
Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery & Restaurant 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, DPBanhMi.com
Lilly’s Cafe 1813 Magazine St., 599-9999
Mint Modern Vietnamese 5100 Freret St., 218-5534, MintModernBistro.com
Tân Đinh 1705 Lafayette St., Gretna, 361-8008
The Italian Barrel 430 Barracks St., 569-0198, TheItalianBarrel.com
Mr. Bubbles Sandwich Shop 925 Behrman Highway, Suite 12, Gretna, 570-6377