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Thu March 8, 2012
Where Y'Eat: Learning to Eat Viet Orleanian
A category of café I call "Viet Orleanian" are run by Vietnamese people, specialize in New Orleans staples and, increasingly, are started to weave a little of their own native flavors into the mix too.
There’s a category of restaurants around town that I’ve started calling “Viet Orleanian.” Typically run by first- or second-generation Vietnamese immigrants, they specialize in bargain po-boys, seafood platters, gumbo and, usually, yaka mein, that unglamorous soup of spaghetti noodles, meat, boiled eggs and hot sauce that’s sometimes called “old sober” for its hangover-fighting abilities.
Orchid Seafood is one model, with a best-in-class seafood pasta that amounts to yellow, garlicky mac and cheese crusted with large shrimp. Several others are in orbit around the city’s criminal courthouse, keeping the jury pool civil.
These places don’t have much curb appeal, but they can furnish a satisfying lunch with distinctly local flavor faster and cheaper than just about any other type of eatery. The addition of one more in this category is not exactly momentous news, but C&A Seafood has been upping the game in some small but significant ways.
Housed in a former gas station, now done over with a stucco exterior and a sort of timber grotto out front, C&A from the start featured a big case of boiled seafood, with beautiful shrimp layered with bay leaves, chopped-up Dungeness crabs and piles of crawfish. A guy can make a pretty solid lunch from a half-pound of those shrimp and tall boy of Big Shot soda from C&A’s wall of beverages.
But what grabbed my attention here was the addition of spring rolls – fresh, clean-tasting rice paper wraps, bundled up by the cash register as grab-and-go snacks. For as long as I’ve visited these Viet Orleanian cafes, I’ve wondered why their owners so rarely incorporate some their own Vietnamese food into the program. A few places, like Bywater Market or Eat-Well Food Store, do a side business in Vietnamese dishes, but it takes some digging to find them.
As it turns out, the owners of C&A Seafood also run a frozen yogurt shop in Baton Rouge, called Dream Berrie Café, that happens to field a lengthy menu of the classic pho soup, jasmine rice platters and bun noodle salads. So the template is there, and the simple addition of spring rolls at C&A is a trial balloon for a potentially more diverse menu here. As things stand now, though, C&A is a reliable pit stop for boiled seafood, and a bank of yogurt dispensers has also recently appeared, in sort of the same way that a bar might add video poker machines to try to jazz up business.
The seafood gumbo is an exemplar of the Viet Orleanian style, with a full and lemony flavor, as if the roux crossed paths with a seafood boil. Fried seafood is good, especially the shrimp, which can sometimes approach the size of chicken wings. Roast beef is the ordinary deli-sliced variety, though there’s something to the thin, salty gravy that makes it like a glistening glaze.
And then there’s that yaka mein. Dark and oily, with lots of green onion and fried onions floating on top and filled with plump shrimp, it’s simple but satisfying and restorative. Still, spooning the stuff out of C&A’s super-sized take-out containers, I can’t help but pine a little for the pho this kitchen could be making alongside it. One thing’s for sure, these Viet Orleanian places seem primed for more multicultural culinary potential.
1429 Jefferson Davis Pkwy., New Orleans, 504-822-8497
4400 St. Claude Ave., 948-8998
Eat-Well Food Store
2700 Canal St., New Orleans, 504-821-7730
1201 N. Broad St., New Orleans, 504-482-9092