TABLE TALK: Re-piecing the Vietnamese scene
Recently a good bowl of pho has been hard to find. The aromatic broth full of beef and rice noodles began as Vietnamese street food. As New Orleans’ Vietnamese community grew over the last three decades, pho became as common as turtle soup in the Crescent City.
Poor-boys returned quickly, but “Vietnamese poor-boys,” the little loaves of French bread stuffed with pâté and pickled vegetables, are less common than before. Diners need advance planning to satisfy a craving for a bowl of vermicelli noodles topped with pork and roasted peanuts or summer rolls with nuoc cham, a dip made of lime, chilis and fish sauce.
The Vietnamese community in eastern New Orleans has heroically begun rebuilding their restaurants. On the West Bank, where the damage was less severe, many Vietnamese restaurants reopened in early October just days after the mayor allowed residents to return. The popular Pho Tau Bay reopened its original West Bank location in early April 2006. But without Pho Tau Bay’s still unopened outlets in Mid-City and Metairie, many East Bank residents lost their regular spot for Vietnamese cuisine.
In the months since the storm, some people discovered a new favorite place on the West Bank to satisfy their taste for Vietnamese.
A rickshaw full of menus rests inside the door at Tan Dinh, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. It’s as if a driver delivered a fare, tasted the food and decided never to leave. Last year the restaurant moved to a cavernous new location, where the main decoration is a brightly colored chart of bubble teas. Through word of mouth, Tan Dinh developed a loyal following, which swears that it’s the best Vietnamese in New Orleans. They might be right.
Look beyond the familiar to find the best dishes at Tan Dinh. In com tom rim man shrimp are simmered in an almost buttery sauce heavily seasoned with black pepper, a signature spice at Tan Dinh. On the side are a bowl of rice, a cup of chicken soup and thick slices of tart pickled carrots, cabbage and daikon radish.
The quail, one of the best preparations in town, is coated in a dark mahogany marinade and roasted until the skin becomes brittle. It’s served with spongy rice-flour buns, which can be used to create a sandwich reminiscent of good
barbecue between slices of white bread.
At a recent meal, my favorite dish wasn’t even Vietnamese. The Korean short ribs were added to Tan Dinh’s menu after customers demanded some red meat at the poultry-heavy restaurant. Thin-cut, flanken-style ribs are marinated, charbroiled and dusted with black pepper. The same pickled vegetables served with the other entrées are tossed in a hot pepper sauce to approximate kimchee, the fiery Korean staple.
The bo tai chanh at 9 Roses would satisfy a hunger for red meat. Thin slices of almost raw tenderloin, marinated in lime and vinegar, are sprinkled with peanuts and heaped over onions and mint. As with Latin American ceviche, the acid in the vinegar cooks the meat. Another specialty is the bright yellow crepe made of pan-fried rice flour wrapped around pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. I could smell the smoke from the lau do bien, a seafood hot pot, before it arrived at our table. Around a charcoal-packed metal chimney, shrimp, catfish, scallops, mussels and fish meatballs cook in a hot-and-sour broth that tasted of pineapple and tamarind.
Nine Roses is ill-suited for loners. Half the tables are large enough to host a family reunion. Most orders are too large for one person. And with more than 250 items on the menu, you would need to order at least a dozen dishes on each visit.
There may be fewer Vietnamese options on the East Bank, but Hong Kong Market in Gretna sells every ingredient necessary to cook Asian cuisine at home. The Wal-Mart-size grocery store began as a Houston chain and expanded to New Orleans last summer. I worked up an appetite just trying to identify the unlabeled produce and the dried fish-products, which were clearly labeled in Latin. Thankfully, a stand in the back corner sells banh mi, the Vietnamese poor-boys. No shopper will starve in the Hong Kong Market.
Pho Danh 4 hides just inside the entrance to the Hong Kong Market. The decor is modern, but only traditional soups are on the menu. Near the cash register, the spices used to make pho – clove, star anise and cinnamon – are displayed in urns behind glass like sports trophies at a high school.
The strong fragrance from those sweet spices rises from a bowl of pho. Rare slices of beef cook slowly in the hot broth. The soup can be customized with herbs and peppers from the dia rau song, the plate of pristine limes, chilis, bean sprouts, purple cabbage, purple-edged Asian basil and saw-tooth herb, a grassy-tasting cilantro. The pho at Pho Danh 4 could win a real first-place trophy in a citywide competition.
Pho Tau Bay tells its customers that the east bank locations might never reopen. Perhaps we can persuade Tan Dinh or 9 Roses to expand. Until then, I’ll be crossing the Crescent City Connection when I’m in the mood for Vietnamese.