As the noodle house staples of pho, spring rolls and banh mi proliferate around New Orleans, some new Vietnamese restaurants are standing apart with a more contemporary taste.
The New Orleans restaurant scene in general is growing pretty fast. But the Vietnamese restaurant scene here in particular? It’s growing like crazy.
In the past 18 months alone, at least eight new Vietnamese restaurants have opened between Old Metairie, the CBD and the sweep of Uptown. It’s a trend that has greatly, and quickly, increased the options for the common standards of the casual Vietnamese café — namely the beef broth soup called pho, rice paper-wrapped spring rolls and banh mi, those sandwiches of various meats, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and hot peppers known as the Vietnamese po-boy.
Partisans can argue the finer points of what makes the version of a particular dish at one of these new places superior to the others — in the same way that five New Orleanians might pick 10 different places when asked where to get the best plate of red beans.
But among this new crop of Vietnamese kitchens are a few that definitely stand apart by staking out new turf. At Pho Bistreaux, a new place on the corner of Oak Street and South Carrollton Avenue, this means turning a banh mi sandwich into a taco, folding the usual toppings in a soft flour tortilla, and it means wrapping fried, crunchy egg rolls inside fresh spring rolls for what amounts to a double-decker roll.
Meanwhile, on Maple Street, another newcomer called Ba Chi Canteen journeys even farther from the standards. It was opened by the younger generation of the same family that has operated the Gretna restaurant Tan Dinh for many years. They serve pho and spring rolls and all of that at Ba Chi Canteen too, but here the real specialties of the house might also borrow ingredients from the sushi bar, fold in bold Korean flavors and arrive with the artful dash for presentation you’d expect at a maverick tapas bar.
At Ba Chi Canteen, you split open a softball-sized, panko-crusted orb to reveal pork fried rice, with egg yolk and fish roe dribbling in from the top. You pick apart the “gyoza nacho,” a baroque construction of Japanese dumplings, raw jalapeno, herbs and edamame salsa all painted with honeyed Sriracha mayo. You dredge buttery, stretchy, black-blistered pancakes through a bubbling pot of short ribs in a beefy gravy mellowed with coconut milk. And when you eat grilled corn on the cob, sliced like a sushi roll, topped with crawfish tails, a confetti of shredded beets and zigzags of basil aioli, you may hear a sonnet to familiar summer flavors recited in a foreign tongue.
The bao also figures on the Ba Chi Canteen menu. Bao is a type of steamed flour bun. It’s a little chewy, a little sweet and very traditional — but here it’s reconfigured as another version of a Vietnamese taco. They call them bacos, and fill them with everything from soft shell crab to pork belly.
Ba Chi Canteen has a lot of variety, but when it comes right down to it this restaurant offers an example of what happens when a young Vietnamese chef stops trying to impress the grandparents with fidelity to flavors of the Old Country and starts exploring multi-cultural possibilities. And while the ingredients are a bit different, that is a very New Orleans story.
Ba Chi Canteen
7900 Maple St., (504) 373-5628
1200 S. Carrollton Ave., (504) 304-8334