There are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans, but there is only one like the Em Trai Sandwich Company. Recently opened by chef and owner Tung Nguyen, Em Trai cleverly melds traditional Vietnamese, American barbecue and local poor boy shop influences into one contemporary package served up with slick minimalist style.
Em Trai landed fully formed, a neat trick for a first-time restaurant. This is not mere luck. Hailing from a large family, many of whom own restaurants and work in hospitality, Nguyen had it drilled into him from early on that he needed to set himself apart from the pack. He therefore rounded out his work experience in family restaurants growing up with time spent in corporate environments like the Hyatt, where he picked up front of house, back of house and business management skills. All this paved the way for this first effort T2, a stall in the nearby St. Roch Market. There, Nguyen honed his craft while seizing pop-up opportunities at Urban South and Second Line Brewing to tinker with new dishes, and paving the way for Em Trai.
The menu manages to be simultaneously broad and streamlined. It is sectioned out across various categories (starters, bao, pho, salads and sandwiches) and the more items you can try here, the happier you will be. Start with a selection of bao, small sandwiches wrapped in signature rounds of steamed white dough. His “Bang Bang Shrimp” are tossed with a spicy Kewpie-like mayo punched up with sweet chili, sambal and fresh lime juice. The “Char Siu Pork Belly” is first cooked off in the oven before being portioned and seared to create a terrific caramelized outer crust. The double-wide spring rolls are stuffed with a vibrant assortment of greens with the option of adding in pork or shrimp. “I look at them kind of like a wrap, a sandwich on the go,” Nguyen said. “So I pack in a lot of greens with a little bit of noodle for texture.”
One approach that sets his menu apart is that Nguyen sources many of his smoked meats from Central City BBQ (he is on a Hogs for the Cause team with their pit master James Cruse). The brisket, pulled pork and chicken all share a traditionally American barbecue flavor. “I wanted to do some Vietnamese classics featuring American ingredients,” Nguyen said. “A lot of Vietnamese barbecue is sweet, like that char sui marinade. I wanted to bring it where you get more smokiness. It’s prepared much the same way – Vietnamese and Americans both like tender brisket – but each has a different flavor profile.”
There are also traditional poor boys (shrimp and roast beef, for example) along with Banh Mi options. A meatless option built around Enoki mushrooms is notable as a vegetarian option that has a meaty, umami-rich flavor and texture. “I stir fry them with red onion, five spice and fried shallots and they get served in a traditional banh mi style with cilantro and the carrots,” he said. “Reminds me of a roast beef and gravy sandwich.” The bread comes from Hi-Do Bakery. “I’m all about Hi-Do since day one,” Nguyen said. “I’m a Westbank boy. I just love Hi-Do.”
MEET THE CHEF
Tung Nguyen spent a lot of time in restaurants growing up. His parents owned a poor boy and seafood shop in Algiers and his sister operates a successful clutch of restaurants are well. One of 13 siblings (Em Trai means “Little Brother”), Nguyen knew right away he had to set himself apart. “My family asked me well, what are you going to do differently here to separate yourself from everyone else?” he explains. “They challenged me.” In response, Nguyen has concocted a unique approach that confidently brings together Vietnamese, BBQ and New Orleans influence.
Over on Maple Street in the Carrollton neighborhood is Ba Chi Canteen, which serves up a fusion-y menu ostensibly grounded in Vietnamese but includes a wide variety of cultural influences such as Korean and Chinese. Aimed at the college crowd, the price points are low and the creative mash-ups include a long list of “Bacos” – a cross between bao and tacos.