When your friends and family come to visit you, what do they expect? They imagine huge portions of fresh or fried seafood. They envision creamy French cuisine rivaling that of Paris and Lyon. They can nearly taste the powdered sugar on a fresh beignet. And they are totally right to do so. But as I recently learned from an out-of-town friend, they never expect Vietnamese broths and fresh ingredients. In fact, when informing my visiting friend from high school of the amazing Vietnamese food scene down here, he asked, "What even is Vietnamese food?" After allowing the blood to stop boiling and my heart to slow down, I replied with an onslaught of in-depth descriptions of pho, banh mi, vermicelli, and everything in between.
This is something very near and dear to me, as I adore this cuisine that is often misunderstood, overlooked, or mishandled. Like many great cuisines of the world, Vietnamese food is (relatively) simple in its ingredients and preparation, yet incredibly complex in its flavor. It is all about the ying and the yang. It is a delicate balancing act between fresh and fermented, hot and cold, sweet and savory. I don't want to simplify the complex cuisines of Vietnam into just a few dishes, but allow me to summarize it.
To understand the Vietnamese food in New Orleans, you must know about the French colonization of Vietnam. Missionaries began colonizing "French Indo-China" in the 18th century, and Vietnam didn't gain its independence until 1954. This left an everlasting mark on Vietnam, for better or worse. The French presence is reflected in Vietnamese culture, architecture, and of course, the food. Most notably, the banh mi sandwich, a staple of Vietnamese street food, is served on a miniature French baguette. Many other Vietnamese pastries also have their roots in French colonialism. So how did there come to be nearly 15,000 Vietnamese in New Orleans?
The year is 1975 and David Bowie's "Fame" is topping the charts. Meanwhile, the United States is pulling out of a largely acknowledged lost war in Vietnam, and Saigon has just fallen. In the next five to 10 years, over half a million Vietnamese immigrants come to the United States to find refuge. While many of the Vietnamese locate to geographically reasonable locations like San Jose, some are enticed to venture elsewhere. Many of the Vietnamese people fleeing their country were Roman Catholic. Numerous Catholic charities wanted to bring these communities to New Orleans. By using incentives such as affordable housing, these organizations helped find a safe and livable sanctuary for many Vietnamese communities. The affordable housing was not the only reason for the move, however. The similar climate, coupled with the French colonization of both Vietnam and Louisiana, allowed for a relatively smooth transition. These communities relocated to New Orleans East, as well as Marrero, Gretna, Algiers, and Avondale. For decades, these communities flourished. Their importance to New Orleans was highlighted after Hurricane Katrina, as they were among the first to return to the city and begin to rebuild.
Now that that's all explained, let's get into the good stuff.
As previously mentioned, the banh mi, or colloquially called "Vietnamese po-boy," is synonymous with the cuisine. The sandwich is often smeared with a pâté and/or spicy mayonnaise. It is topped with a protein and dressed with piles of cilantro, sliced cucumber, carrots, radish, and jalapeños. So where do you find the best banh mi sandwich? Right at the source.
This culinary kingdom is where I tell just about everyone to go if they have a car. Located in New Orleans East on Chef Menteur Highway, Dong Phuong has been baking some of the freshest breads and pastries since 1981. Dong Phuong supplies the bread for venerated New Orleans establishments such as Killer Poboys and McClure's BBQ. They have 17 varieties of banh mi ranging from toasted shrimp patty to French cold cuts. Almost all sandwiches are priced around $3, and if you buy 10, you get one free! Also, find the time to sit down in their restaurant attached to the bakery and enjoy a spectacular dish like egg noodle soup in an allspice beef broth with a quarter roasted duck. While you are there, you can also satisfy your sweet tooth with cream puffs, cakes, macaroons, and more. Or just keep it savory and get a pork and onion pastry. Your call.
Honestly, it is difficult to say which Vietnamese restaurants do vermicelli, rice bowls, or pho the best. They are simply different and delicious in their own way. Instead, let's take a journey through the neighborhoods in New Orleans to see where to find Vietnamese food wherever you are.
Frosty's Caffe—If you find yourself in Metairie and looking for an excellent fresh meal, look no further. Frosty's has a variety of bubble teas and a menu that, while not strictly Vietnamese, is strictly delicious. Go for their charbroiled shrimp and pork vermicelli (rice noodle) for a tasty time.
PHOBISTREAUX—As the name might suggest, this restaurant is famous for their (wait for it) pho. Also, please don't pronounce it like foe, just say fuh. While there are many delicious pho options, the Vinh's special is a must: oxtail, filet, brisket, and meatballs.
Singleton's Mini Mart—While this corner store adorned with Miami Dolphins swag may serve up classic po-boys, the Vietnamese owners show off their chops with crispy spring rolls and a (now) daily Vietnamese menu with all your favorites except pho, which is only served on Saturdays. One of their best items is not exactly Vietnamese but damn, is it good. The Korean BBQ pork po-boy features marinated tender strips of pork dressed in Vietnamese fashion. It's delicious.
Mint Modern Vietnamese Bistro—This modern Vietnamese bistro has all the classics, plus some delicious additions like the kimchi burger and bacon and crab rangoon. Their cocktails are deliciously distinctive as well. Try their dark lychee mojito for a taste of two worlds in one glass. My favorite thing to get at Mint is the aforementioned kimchi burger. Even though I don't like kimchi, something about the way they do it, with the delicious sweet potato fries, is just outstanding. Also, their wings are explosively good and crispy, drizzled with a sticky hoisin sauce.
Magasin—This BYOB restaurant is always busy and lively with locals on dates and friends enjoying delicious (and cheap!) Vietnamese food. They have a wider selection of options than most Vietnamese restaurants, including toppings like garlic-fried tofu, shrimp balls, eggplants, and more. The move here is definitely to bring a nice bottle of wine and grab the lemongrass beef on jasmine rice topped with a fried egg. Oh, and their Vietnamese crepe is delicately thin and crunchy, stuffed with bean sprouts, carrots, shrimp, pork, and cilantro.
MOPHO—The former August chef opened this restaurant with a simple idea: Make the Mekong meet the Mississippi. The cast iron-braised rice cakes are excellent and the Brussels sprouts are some of the best in the city. Get the meat-packed pho with beef broth with oxtail, braised tripe, rib-eye, pork belly, meatball, tendon, slow poached egg, crispy spring roll, and head cheese. You'll be full.
Pho Cam Ly—This quaint spot is just a stone's throw away from Magasin but with a very different vibe. Here, it is all about the spring rolls. Order them fresh or fried, you won't be disappointed either way. My favorite spring roll includes fresh shrimp and pork. Think you might be hungrier than that? Go for the ultimate pho challenge: two pounds of noodles and two pounds of meat within one hour and get your picture on the wall, a free $50 bowl of pho, and of course, bragging rights.
Garden District/Lower Garden District
Lilly's Café—One of the first Vietnamese restaurants I went to in New Orleans was Lilly's. The friendly staff is coupled with fresh and delicious food that could cure any freshman's hangover. They have a really unique spring roll with shrimp, avocado, and strawberries, but it's the mixed beef pho with quail eggs that keeps me coming back for more.
Magasin Kitchen—The offshoot of Magasin Uptown has a more broad and distinctive taste than its parent restaurant. Bar snacks include vodka-soaked squid and Asian-seasoned popcorn. They also have a variety of Asian brews. What I love here is the "Vietnamese Bibimbap," which combines a number of plates together, like fried rice and grilled meats and vegetables, into a single cast iron pan.
Tan Dinh—This Gretna favorite has a diner-esque long menu. Pages of familiar and not-so-familiar dishes may overwhelm you at first, but have no fear, everything is excellent. Especially the wings drizzled with butter and served with lime sauce. At the same time, the roasted quail and spicy lemongrass squid are hard to beat.
Hong Kong Food Market—If you find yourself across the bridge and deep into the Westbank, step into this eye-opening Asian market and walk to the back for anything from Peking duck to fresh banh mi sandwiches. Pro tip: ask them to put the crispy duck into the po-boy. Another pro tip: avoid the aisle with the durian.