Pho Bubbles Up Around New Orleans

New Orleans, La. –

Walk into Lost Love Lounge any given night and you'll find people draining beers, shooting pool and chatting at the bar. But soon you might notice something different about this particular Faubourg Marigny watering hole. There, at a corner table by the jukebox, there's a guy slurping steaming broth from a huge bowl. And at the bar, two girls are twirling noodles around chopsticks and squirting a huge bottle of bright red hot sauce over chunks of fried tofu. Between pouring drinks, the bartender snarfs down a rice paper roll stuffed with shrimp and fresh cilantro.

It's just part of the uncommon yet surprisingly apt late-night eating options at Lost Love Lounge, a bar with a film noir name, a backstreet vibe and a kitchen in the back serving traditional Vietnamese food.

The business name for that kitchen sounds too close to the baddest of bad words to utter on the radio, but suffice to say it starts with the word pho and ends with the word king. Okay, it's Pho King.

But pho is really good clean fun, and the kitchen at Lost Love Lounge is proving how well this traditional, ambrosial beef noodle soup and other Vietnamese classics can play the role of pub grub. All through the night, servers here shuttle bowls of cool rice noodle salads called bun and crusty banh mi sandwiches packed with grilled pork or chicken to patrons around the bar. As the night progresses and the jukebox cranks 80s hits and heavy metal ballads, the orders of tofu spring rolls, grilled shrimp with jasmine rice and tempura fried bananas keep rolling from the kitchen.

A Marigny barroom is new territory for Vietnamese cooking in these parts. Not too long ago, finding this type of food meant visiting the restaurants clustered near the Vietnamese enclaves in New Orleans East or Gretna. I think those are still the best destinations to experience local Vietnamese cooking in full bloom. But as the familiarity and popularity of this cuisine has grown, the opportunities for a taste of the casual standards - like spring rolls, banh mi, bun and pho - are proliferating and working their way closer to the mainstream.

For instance, some corner stores and delis run by Vietnamese families have added take-out pho, bun and banh mi to their routine of gumbo and plate lunches, though these new choices aren't always obvious. Pass the ranks of beer coolers and the aisles of junk food at Eat-Well Food Store in Mid-City and you'll find a sandwich counter making a first-rate banh mi bulging with Vietnamese cold cuts and pickled vegetables. Singleton's Mini Mart in Uptown's Black Pearl neighborhood always has spring rolls wrapped and ready by the cash register, and bun and pho are served on Saturdays now too. Hand-written posters give instructions for how to properly garnish the soup and they tout its powers as a hangover cure, a boast perhaps intended to entice the many college students who live nearby. Across town, Bywater Market has the feel of a convenience store under siege, but just ask and the ladies working behind the protective plastic barrier will ladle out pho by the quart beside their steam table of turkey necks and red beans.

Vietnamese food is a long way from being considered traditional New Orleans eating. But the way it's cropping up around town these days there's more chances than ever to give it an audition.

Bywater Market
4400 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, 504-948-8998

Eat-Well Food Store
2700 Canal St., New Orleans, 504-821-7730

Pho King
2529 Dauphine St., New Orleans, 504-944-0099

Singleton's Mini Mart
7446 Garfield St., New Orleans, 504-866-4741