The Vietnamese population in New Orleans has been growing steadily since the 1970s, and with it, so too has Vietnamese cuisine.
Where years ago eager East Bankers hungry for an authentic bowl of pho, a banh mi sandwich or plate of com tam would have to trek across the Mississippi River and into the vast hinterlands of Gretna or out to New Orleans East, one can now scarcely throw a fresh spring roll down Magazine Street without it smacking into the side of a new Vietnamese restaurant.
This, of course, is a good thing.
It’s no secret that Orleans Parish is experiencing a surge in pho joints, banh mi shops and Viet-fusion eateries, and diners here are both eating it up and loving it.
Among the various local restaurants taking advantage of hungry diners’ fascination and devotion to all things Vietnamese, there seems to be a divide, a clear distinction between dining philosophies.
On the one hand, there are the traditionalists: restaurateurs and chefs looking to preserve the culture of their homeland and, often, their ancestors, to keep the flavors of the past rolling strong into future generations.
In contrast, there’s a growing new guard of intrepid cooks and restaurant folk who are constantly on the lookout for innovation and experimentation, often fusing classical Vietnamese influences with flavors from other Asian cultures. Or, more popularly, to invoke a New Orleans accent on traditional Vietnamese fare.
On the traditional side, one recently opened Uptown restaurant hopes to capture the spirit of Vietnam and share its time-honored flavors with a growing clientele. Sisters Mung and Minh Ha opened Pho Cam Ly earlier this year on Magazine Street in an effort to not just take advantage of the ever-expanding local appetite for their homeland’s cuisine, but also to carry the torch of tradition within their family. The chef, Jonny Nguyen, is their nephew, and cooks and servers alike are all part of the clan.
“I think a lot of Americans nowadays love pho, and pho is our traditional family dish,” says Mung, who moved to New Orleans only a few years ago after having worked for a bank in Switzerland for the last 20 years. “Normally, we eat pho in Vietnam for breakfast, but here people eat it all day long. And that’s great, because it’s our family recipe, going back a long, long time. It’s what we learned from our parents. And we’ve kept that recipe.
“In Vietnam we have our style of pho because our parents were from the northern part of the country,” she says. “And then they moved to South Vietnam, and we were all born in Da Lat. That’s where we take the name of our restaurant, Cam Ly. There’s a very famous waterfall in Da Lat named Cam Ly. That’s our memory from our homeland, from when we were young.”
That waterfall image features prominently on the restaurant’s signage, but it’s clearly the cuisine that the family is the most passionate about. Minh Ha and Chef Nguyen preceeded Mung’s arrival in New Orleans by nearly a decade, having worked for most of that time at the popular West Bank restaurant Pho Bang. When the time came to open up their own family business, they were ready to share their family traditions with Uptown diners.
The pho at Pho Cam Ly is, of course, the centerpiece of the menu. Says Nguyen, “We usually cook pho straight up from the beef bones, and we simmer it for around seven to eight hours with the beef in there, and then we leave it overnight and season it the next day with fresh herbs. It really makes all the flavors come together.”
In addition to the soups, diners will also find rice dishes (com), vermicelli noodle offerings (bun), banh mi sandwiches and other time-honored Vietnamese fare, all with a dedicated attention to tradition. Take, for instance, the egg rolls, filled with savory pork sausage, mushrooms and onions. “It’s not a wonton wrapper, like with Chinese cuisine, but a tapioca sheet that we wrap around the filling,” explains Nguyen. “We make a special fish sauce, too. Everything we do is traditional Vietnamese, not mixed with Chinese or other cuisines. It’s our family history.”
While Pho Cam Ly keeps the light of their family history and its cuisine burning brightly, more and more New Orleans chefs are taking Vietnamese cuisine to new and sometimes strange, often exhilarating, places. Among this modern vanguard is Chef Michael Gulotta, who opened the restaurant MoPho in Mid-City around the same time that Pho Cam Ly opened Uptown. New Orleans-bred and classically trained in French fine dining, Gulotta is most renowned for being the former chef de cuisine at Restaurant August, and has had stints working for such legendary local chefs as John Folse and Emeril Lagasse, not to mention time spent cooking in Italy and Germany.
If anyone questioned why Gulotta would open up a Mid-City restaurant that openly and exuberantly riffs on Vietnamese flavors, it would be the chef himself.
“My background with Vietnamese cuisine?” he asks. “I just like eating it! I wanted to do something way outside my comfort zone. It’s hard, when you come from a really established restaurant that you’ve run for a long time and watched it grow. It’s hard to leave that restaurant and not do something similar. And I wanted to go way outside of that. If I was going to do my own restaurant, it was going to be in a neighborhood, because New Orleans is known for its great neighborhoods, so why not just go with that, and fly way outside of what people expected, and do something totally new for me, to be forced to sink or swim. If I’m going to step this far outside, I’m really going to have to put in everything I have, and really make the food as exciting as possible.”
There’s no doubt that what Gulotta has going on at MoPho is exciting, if anything but traditional.
Dishes include pho with a variety of options and add-ons, everything from pork belly to tofu, even cockscombs, as well as rice and noodle dishes topped with bourbon beef cheeks and slow roasted crispy eggplant.
Louisiana influences shine through the menu as well, as evidenced by the fried P&J oysters with a pickled bleu cheese salad and “MoPho mayo” made with fish sauce and fermented red peppers.
“The best thing about Vietnamese cuisine is that, yes, it’s based on classical French influences, but it’s their ability to combat weather that is so similar to ours, which is basically the heat and the humidity,” says Gulotta. “There’s always the finishing application of fresh herbs, bright ginger, garlic, cilantro—and others, like culantro, fish mint and some that I’d never even worked with before. There are so many ingredients and herbs that I’m just getting used to and learning how to use, and it’s like a field day for me. I get to try all these new things—if you’re not craving new knowledge, then you’re not really doing your job, I feel. And so if you’re not pushing yourself and stepping outside of your comfort zone, then you don’t know what you’re really capable of.”
Judging by MoPho’s accolades and bustling dining room, it will surely be exciting to see what Gulotta comes up with next.
At the same time, there’s plenty of room in the city—and our bellies—for tradition as well as experimentation. Whether it’s a bowl of pho cooked from a generations-old family recipe or pepper jelly-braised clams with lamb lardo and annatto beignets, it’s clear that New Orleans is awash in exciting Vietnamese options, with new additions certainly on the way.
And how do locals feel about this? As always, we can barely wait for more.
New Orleans Area Vietnamese Restaurants
August Moon 3635 Prytania St., (504) 899-5129: An Uptown staple for many years, August Moon has been serving Asian fare to New Orleanians since well before East Bankers starting going crazy for pho. You’ll find Vietnamese cuisine on the menu here, as well as Chinese and Thai offerings. House specialties include tamarind crab and ginger-scallion chicken, Peking duck, lemongrass shrimp and a whole fried fish, side-by-side with favorites like General Tso’s chicken, kung pao and moo goo gai pan.
Ba Chi Canteen (opened April 2013) 7900 Maple St., (504) 373-5628: Owner Phat Vu is another in the new wave of Vietnamese restaurateurs in New Orleans who are mixing up old and new, as you’ll find on this Maple Street eatery’s menu. “We have a traditional side of our menu like pho, vermicelli bowls and all that,” says Vu. “But we have a twist on the other side of the menu that’s a fusion of pan-Asian with Japanese cuisine, Thai and Chinese. Our ‘bacos’ are steamed flour buns with shrimp, chicken, oyster, pork, soft-shell crab, topped with a creamy sauce, eel sauce, curry and more. We also have a bulgogi burrito that’s popular, and pulled pork quesadillas with kimchi guacamole, and Thai chile tomatillo. We enjoy experimenting and combining Vietnamese with other cultures.”
Café Minh (opened August 2006) 4139 Canal St., (504) 482-6266: Chef Minh Bui sadly closed the beloved Lemongrass Café following Hurricane Katrina, but it didn’t take him long to reopen as Café Minh in Mid-City, showcasing the chef’s signature French-Vietnamese fare from his native Saigon. “We offer banh mi and pho, but it’s our style,” says Bui. “It’s not traditional style. We offer ‘Minh-mi,’ our version of banh mi using grilled pork cooked to order, and sauteed beef as well. We don’t use cold cuts or frozen products, it’s all cooked on the spot. Our pho is different as well—we use our own mix of spices, fresh noodles instead of dried noodles, and also slice our beef to order.
Doson’s Noodle House 135 N. Carrollton Ave., (504) 309-7283: “We first opened on Oak Street in 1997,” says Alison Ha, daughter of Doson’s owner Doson Ha. “After Katrina we moved to Carrollton. We have lots of noodles, and some Chinese dishes as well. Our specialties are our Vietnamese spring rolls, the chicken soup and beef soup, as well as the chicken salad. We like to be more Vietnamese, but also offer Chinese dishes like fried rice and pan-fried noodles. We do have a lot of fresh vegetables, and our meat is sourced fresh every day. We try to keep things healthy so people can have a balanced diet.”
Eat-Well Food Mart 2700 Canal St., Ste. A, (504) 821-7730: Less a restaurant than a Mid-City convenience store with a food counter, Eat-Well offers traditional pho and other standard Vietnamese fare, but it’s their banh mi sandwich you should look out for, offered in a foot-long version as well as the standard size. The best is the house special that combines roasted pork and barbecue pork, as well as paté and butter, great on the go.
Jazmine Café 614 S. Carrollton Ave., (504) 866-9301: The extensive menu at Jazmine Café courts a variety of Asian appetites in addition to classic Vietnamese fare. Stir-fried noodles and over two dozen different sushi-style spring rolls join pho, com, and vermicelli salads and bowls, as well as a family-style bowl of “lau,” a hot pot of chicken broth in which you simmer your protein and vegetables of choice.
Lilly’s Café 1813 Magazine St., (504) 599-9999: This diminutive, casual Magazine Street noodle shop hits the mark with traditional-style pho, vermicelli noodles, rice dishes and other classics. The chicken with quail eggs is a standout, as are the pork spring rolls. Expect to find friendly staff and service, especially on Saints game days, when servers make sure to wear their black and gold.
Magasin Café (opened February 2012) 4201 Magazine St., (504) 896-7611: “Our main goal is to offer fresh, affordable food with a flavor that we’ve always enjoyed at home,” says Magasin’s co-owner Luu Tran on the modern Vietnamese spot on Magazine Street. “We always do different specials, and try things here that you might not find at a typical Vietnamese restaurant. Vietnamese food is booming, and it’s great to see people experience what Vietnamese food really is, as opposed to other Asian styles popular in America. We have new specials each week—there’s a Vietnamese crepe on the menu, and our pho filet sets us apart, as well. We use a pho broth and add tenderloin, which we marinate, sear in the wok, and then put into the broth, which is a preparation you won’t really find at a typical pho restaurant. With so many foodies and different restaurants down here, it can be hard to compete, so it’s really great to have found some success in New Orleans.”
Mint (opened January 2014) 5100 Freret St., (504) 218-5534: Riding the wave of proudly modern Vietnamese restaurants Uptown is Freret Street’s Mint. According to owner Jimmy Tran, “It’s not off the typical Asian menu, but it’s more modern, like steak and eggs and chicken and waffles—we have our own style of green tea waffle, and combine it with chicken wings. People love our kimchi burger, which is something you don’t find in other places. We try to incorporate some New Orleans things on our menu, like local beers and local spirits like Oryza, Old New Orleans Rum and others.”
MoPho (opened in January 2014) 514 City Park Ave., (504) 482.6845: Michael Gulotta, former chef de cuisine at John Besh’s Restaurant August, set out to conquer both new and familiar territory when opening MoPho, which has quickly become a Mid-City favorite. By incorporating traditional Vietnamese ingredients with his own knowledge of French fine-dining techniques and local ingredients (think bourbon beef cheeks with crispy shallots, black pepper and lime), Gulotta’s eatery is a playful, casual, savory addition to the neighborhood.
Namese (opened November 2013) 4077 Tulane Ave., (504) 483-8899: Mid-City got another infusion of New Orleans-tinged Vietnamese with the opening of Namese. The Phú Quõc chicken wings (slathered with spicy sauce) aren’t to be missed, as is the fried Cornish hen with Dijon ginger sauce, and the “Crabby Crab,” a soft-shell crab dish served over “crabby rice,” which represents a fusion of the Mekong and the Mississippi deltas. Also worth noting is Namese’s full bar, featuring both original and classic cocktails.
Pho Bistreaux (opened April 2013) 1200 S. Carrollton Ave., (504) 304-8334: While you’ll find traditional pho on the menu at Pho Bistreaux (it’s in the name of the restaurant, after all), you’ll also find some more inventive offerings, including double-decker spring rolls, banh mi tacos and Vietnamese sliders. General Manager Cathy Nguyen says: “We do everything from scratch, and our menu is fresh every day. Our sliders are a specialty—it’s a steamed bun like a taco stuffed with grilled shrimp, chicken, tofu, whatever you’d like. The combination of the grilled meat with the steamed bun is really good, and people liked it right when we opened up.”
Pho Cam Ly (opened March 2014) 3814 Magazine St., (504) 644-4228: Sisters Mung and Minh Ha recently opened their family-owned-and-operated Magazine Street eatery, specializing in cuisine from their home town of Da Lat, the capital of the Lâm Dong Province in Vietnam. The family’s pho recipe goes back generations, and the restaurant prides itself on only offering traditional Vietnamese fare, without modern twists, right down to the tapioca-based egg roll wrappers. One novel option, however, is their “pho challenge,” a $40 mega-bowl of soup featuring four pounds of meat and noodles, which is free for anyone who might finish (though no one has yet to do so).
Pho King 804 Franklin Ave., (504) 944-0099: It says a lot about New Orleans that one of the best Vietnamese offerings in the Faubourg Marigny can be found in the back of a popular dive bar, the Lost Love Lounge. The menu isn’t huge, but it hits the traditional highlights—banh mi, bun, vermicelli bowls, egg/spring rolls and pho (of course)—with a refreshing number of vegetarian options. Also notable is that the kitchen makes its own fish sauce and peanut sauce.
Pho-Noi-Viet 2005 Magazine St., (504) 522-3399: Don’t expect to find fusion, whistles or bells at Pho-Noi-Viet—only simple, comforting and traditional Vietnamese, particularly soups and rice dishes. There aren’t hundreds of options to choose from (pho comes in only four varieties, banh mi in three), but what’s done is mostly done well, and satisfies on a budget. One unique item to look out for is the restaurant’s “steak frites,” which is beef and gravy served atop French fries, not something you’ll ordinarily see on Vietnamese menus around town.
Pho Orchid (opened February 2014) 2135 St. Charles Ave., (504) 609-3710: One of the more notable Vietnamese restaurants in Metairie, Pho Orchid opened up their Uptown location last spring. “Our menu on St. Charles is limited, compared to Metairie,” says manager Davis Nguyen. “We don’t have room for the big stir fry, but we still do the traditional soups and rice dishes. We make our own egg rolls by hand, and we also make our own baguette for the banh mi, which is really special—nowhere else in the city will you get the bread that we have. Right now, we’re trying to find out what people on St. Charles really want. But it takes time, and we’re willing to put that in.”
Singleton’s Mini Mart (opened January 2000) 7446 Garfield St., (504) 866-4741: Singleton’s is another grocery store with hot food options, specializing in po-boys and plate lunches. You’ll find a mix of American and Vietnamese fare here, from turkey clubs and chili-cheese fries, but if you head there on Saturdays, you’ll also find spring rolls, beef pho, fried egg rolls and grilled pork with vermicelli noodles or rice.
Ba Mien 13235 Chef Menteur Hwy., (504) 255-0500: According to Ba Mien owner Mai Nguyen, “The name is the name of the three regions of Vietnam, so we specialize in all types of food from North, Central and South Vietnam. I travel a lot, and I learned the different types of food from the three regions, and that’s how I came up with my menu. From the North is our pho, and our steamed rolls with fried onion. Our hot and spicy beef noodle soup is a Central Vietnam specialty, and from the South is a soup that combines seafood and meat with clear noodles. Our menu is pretty big, but our real hope is to serve authentic, traditional Vietnamese cuisine from all three regions of the country.”
Banh Mi Sao Mai 14321 Chef Menteur Hwy., (504) 254-3977: There may not be an extensive menu at Banh Mi Sao Mai, a small spot located in an East New Orleans strip mall, but that doesn’t much matter, since the one thing you’re going to want there is right there in the name. Their house-special banh mi differs from the traditional version, in that it incorporates a savory tomato sauce as well as the more familiar pickled carrots, daikon, jalapenos, and a combination of ham, shredded pork, and meatballs. It is clearly the “meat lovers” banh mi, and the only one quite like it in the city.
Dong Phuong Bakery 14207 Chef Menteur Hwy., (504) 254-0296: It’s hard to think of Vietnamese bread in New Orleans without thinking of Dong Phuong, which has roots in New Orleans East stretching back over 30 years. So many local restaurants use their baked goods, Dong Phuong has become an institution. If you go, you’ll of course want a banh mi on freshly baked bread, but don’t overlook the menu of Asian sweets, including pies, pastries, mochi, sponge cups, egg tarts, creme puffs and even personalized, intricately decorated cakes.
Pho Bang 14367 Chef Menteur Hwy., (504) 254-3929: Fast, inexpensive and satisfying, Pho Bang sticks to the basics and does them well, evidenced by the fact that they now operate three locations in the greater metro area. Pho Bang might not be blazing any culinary trails when it comes to Vietnamese food on the East Bank, but they’re a favorite among the local Viet community, particularly when it comes to family meals. Steaming bowls of pho abound, but adventurous eaters will find some interesting cuts to add to their soup here, including beef navel, as well as tendons and omosa.