Few regions can compete with the flavor palette offered by that of Southeast Asia. The tropical latitudes of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos yield a kaleidoscopic panoply of herbs, spices and produce. It is ingredient-driven cuisine at its most honest, with a cultural culinary foundation that to western palettes jukes sideways and surprises – think fish sauce in lieu of salt for example; the former contributes far more depth to a dish than the latter. Other staples, like the electric tingling of Szechuan peppercorns, contribute physical sensation as much as flavor. Plus, there is pork – glorious charbroiled pork. Did I mention the pork? Vietnam should get industry recognition for flipping charbroiled pork’s popular perception on its head and rebranding it as a healthy lifestyle choice.
So what happens when this cooking comes to New Orleans, as our city already boasts a terrific array of Vietnamese options? What I wanted to look at here are some innovative combinations of approaches to this spectrum of food. The first, Marjie’s Grill, marries it with the US South and a bit of New Orleans for flair. The other, Maypop, is the fine-dining extension of Chef Michael Gulotta’s popular Mopho. While they both dip from the same culinary well, they represent different approaches and both deserve visits based on their own merits.
Caitlin Carney and Marcus Jacobs met at Herbsaint – she worked in the front while Marcus worked in the kitchen. The pair bonded over their love of food, specifically Vietnamese and Thai, and launched the pop-up Sparklehorse Grill in 2015 to begin testing the waters for their own place. With the experience gleaned there, as well as two months spent eating their way through Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, they opened the doors to Marjie’s Grill.
“We wanted this to be a neighborhood joint,” Caitlin says. “Void of pretension, just somewhere you could get a bite and hang out.” Their unique hook – marrying Southeast Asian cuisine to the US South, is actually organic rather than forced. “In Vietnam they do a lot of plate lunches,” Marcus explained. “Just like going to a ‘meat and three’ in Alabama – you get your rice, a choice of a couple different sides and your main protein. That way of eating really spoke to the way we wanted to eat here.” Couple this approach with a menu that sources local produce and meats, and the concept made easy sense.
For starters, consider the Smoked Mushroom salad. The oyster mushrooms come from Screaming Oaks Farm in Folsom and are charred then tossed with a mix of greens including cilantro, arugula, dill and scallions. It gets dressed with a vinaigrette built on Thai fish sauce and finished with toasted rice powder, adding a roasted flavor as well as some crunch.
For entrees, I’d recommend the Charred Pork Shoulder Steak, a dish that was directly influenced by their travels. The crust is terrific – rubbed with a warm spice blend of turmeric, black pepper, coriander and chili flakes. “We use that same seasoning on our crackling,” Marcus says. The platter comes with an array of fresh herbs and a spicy green garlic dipping sauce. Also popular is the Sweet and Spicy Gulf Shrimp, their take on New Orleans BBQ shrimp. The head-on jumbos are seared in a wok then cooked down in a beer, citrus and chili-infused butter sauce scented with aromatic herbs.
The feel is causal – a neighborhood joint. Look for patio seating to be offered soon, which will open up additional tables and let the party spill outside. “When you are back there, you know that Broad Street is just outside, but in here it is going to be another world,” Marcus says.
Chef Michael Gulotta was the former Chef de Cuisine at August but made a name for himself with Mopho, a fusion-y neighborhood spot by Delgado that mixed up Vietnamese and Creole cuisines with a lively bar scene. He has now built upon that success with Maypop, the creative extension of Mopho, which seeks in some ways to return back to his fine dining roots.
“Mopho has become such an established neighborhood place that we’ve found we can’t really change it up a whole lot, whereas with Maypop we have that flexibility for innovation. We can be more creative,” Gulotta explains.
Here the menu is broader, drawing in a wide range of influences that extends into India (the Bib Lettuce Chaat) and even North Africa (Harissa Braised lamb with fenugreek and anise seed). The Chaat Salad is recommended, with an unassuming ranch-style dressing tweaked with coconut milk that will quickly win you over. The chutney made from local beets and candied citrus brings it back home. Another dish off the lunch menu is the Chilled Buckwheat Noodle Salad, a street-food staple base punched up with local blue crab, pickled mirliton, strawberries and green Szechuan peppercorns.
Fans of Dim Sum, who are likely sad and generally unsatisfied here in New Orleans, will be happy to know that Maypop has launched a weekend Dim Sum menu. Try the Sticky Sesame Balls – rice dough stuffed with a spicy cane syrup sausage rolled in sesame seeds – crispy on the outside but with a chewy rice cake-like texture on the inside. “We’ll be rolling out the soup dumplings soon,” Gulotta says. Stay tuned for more.
La Thai Renew
La Thai on Prytania underwent a recent renovation and along with the new look came a new small plates menu. Called Nit Noi, this collection of sharable bites incorporates Southern, Vietnamese and Laotian influences and is modeled on traditional street foods. Try the Laap Gai, a chopped chicken medley with spiked with lime, Thai chili, toasted rice powder, green onion, mint and cilantro served with lettuce cups.
320 S Broad St., Mid-City
Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday
611 O’Keefe Ave., South Market
Lunch and dinner daily
ASIAN FUSION $$$