Over by the Claiborne Avenue bridge, where the clanking and bang of the highway meets the gentle flow of Esplanade, there’s a crisp smell at all hours. The Manchu Food Store is open and serving. Its purple front, made famous in various local music videos, has a painted-on green sign that gives you a vague idea of what’s on offer.
“My mom’s dad was an absolute hardass,” John Nguyen says as he recalls his grandfather Kevin, a Vietnamese immigrant who bought the original Manchu on Saint Bernard in the 1980s and later opened the Claiborne location. “His pass for marrying his daughters was, you had to come to his store and work. He did this to every single one of my uncles who married into the family. My dad was no exception to the rule.”
Manchu is no place for hanging around. On the corner, there’s traffic, and inside there’s traffic. A mad carousel of bodies revolves in hunger. People walk in in their slippers, looking up at the menu that towers over everyone. The place is chaotic and confusing at first, yet efficient and straight to the point.
“It’s a madhouse sometimes and it’s crazy how we get things to work,” Nguyen explains while sporting a purple Manchu hat. “Once you walk in, there’s a lot of loud speaking over each other, speakerphone happening, orders going down to the kitchen, people bouncing in and out of the windows. It’s just like this city, there’s nothing ever calm about it.”
There are no explicit rules, or directions offered to the customer.
“Even though the system seems wacky, to us it’s normal,” Nguyen adds. “And we like it. The noise, the energy, it’s the same composition as a live band.”
When it first opened in 1991, Manchu was your regular New Orleans corner store, a three-employee operation with a small fryer in the back. It was John’s parents, Tommy and Yen Pham Nguyen who carried the load. “My mom was so badass, she had just had me and she was already back in there two months later,” Nguyen recounts. “A couple years down the road she came up with the recipe for what was gonna be the most popular item on the menu. The fried chicken wings.”
From there, Manchu found an identity and word-of-mouth publicity that brought new business in. Quickly, it grew from a simple convenience store to that place where you can get obscene amounts of fried wings in no time anytime.
Don’t look for fancy pictures of unearthly staged food. The focus is not set on providing a neat dining experience. No one’s got time for that. The kitchen fries up to half a ton of chicken on a busy day, and it tastes uninhibitedly and unapologetically real.