New Orleans Cuisine’s Surprising New Flavors
NEW ORLEANS—It’s just after 4 p.m. on a Friday at Dong Phuong Restaurant and Bakery, and Kevin Tran—a jovial 25-year-old who is heir apparent to the family business—is pouring himself a glass of tap water and laughing about a recent boil-water advisory issued by the city.
“I think we’ll be fine all the way out here, but just in case,” he says, handing me a bottle of water and placing his own sweaty (potentially amoeba-filled) cup on the table, unmoved by government instructions to avoid tap water for the time being.
The restaurant is far from the candy-colored facades of the French Quarter and fluffy allure of hot beignets. But it’s out here in neighborhoods like Village de L’Est that the true range of New Orleans’ physical and culinary landscape begins to reveal itself. In the decade since Hurricane Katrina and the exodus that followed, a shifting citywide demographic has created a multitude of new, increasingly diverse norms in the spectrum of edible offerings, from hole-in-the-wall pupuserias that cater to the city’s burgeoning Honduran population to Korean, Filipino, and Nigerian restaurants quietly building followings across the city.
No cuisine, though, has expanded with greater zeal than Vietnamese. The blossoming awareness across Orleans Parish about the glories of pho and banh mi shines a new light not only on the foodways of the region’s Vietnamese population but also on the important role of a community overlooked for decades.
The social and political importance of New Orleans’ Vietnamese population has expanded significantly since Hurricane Katrina, most notably through the election of the first Vietnamese American U.S. representative, James Cao, and the work of nonprofits like the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association in providing a smorgasbord of resources, from ESL training to youth summer camps.
Tran is one of a number of Vietnamese millennial small business operators, culinary leaders, and activists helping to ensure not only that the traditions of their families are carried on but that the voices of the Vietnamese community receive a bigger megaphone and increased support.
Mostly, though, it’s Vietnamese cuisine that’s served as an entry point for New Orleanians to learn more about the state’s largest immigrant group. From Uptown to Mid-City, today it’s almost impossible to go even a handful of blocks without running into a Vietnamese restaurant or finding New Orleans standards influenced by the cuisine. A decade ago, such density wouldn’t have been imaginable.
“Pre-Katrina we mostly offered family-style food, and the demographics were basically 90 percent Vietnamese people,” says Tran. “A year or two after Katrina, you started to see different kinds of people coming in. Now, it’s 40 percent Vietnamese people and 60 percent everybody else.”
The dinner table is a place where change can be tasted long before the big picture comes into focus, especially in a food-driven city like New Orleans. The broadening of Vietnamese influence post-Katrina reflects a slow but steady deepening of the community’s roots. From chef-driven restaurants like MoPho crafting bourbon-soaked boba teas to corner stores slinging po’boys and banh mi in tandem, Vietnamese culture is no longer on the fringes of society.
Thousands of Vietnamese immigrated to South Louisiana in the wake of 1970s post-Communist rule, spurred by Catholic missionaries and a comfortably similar subtropical climate. The original 1,000 families who arrived in Orleans Parish in 1975 helped establish enclaves on opposite sides of the city—one in New Orleans East and the other on the Westbank—that remain the cultural centers for Vietnamese communities today.
The first of these neighborhoods, Village de l’Est, is home to flat stretches of marshland that bleed into the horizon. It is increasingly dotted with businesses advertising their services in dueling Vietnamese, Spanish, and English.
In the decade since Hurricane Katrina, Dong Phuong—a central point of orbit for New Orleans East—has risen to prominence as a leader in expanding Vietnamese cuisine to the greater New Orleans area. Kevin Tran’s family arrived in the United States in the early 1980s and began building their businesses in 1981 while working odds jobs and stocking shelves.
While the restaurant received little damage from the 2005 storm, the Tran family home was flooded with four feet of water, despite the house sitting on a 20-foot incline. “We lived up [above the restaurant] for a while after Hurricane Katrina in a little apartment, and you’d see wild boars running around,” Tran recalls. “At night, people would come in with trailers and guns and shoot them, and we’d get scared because we’d hear these gunshots at night and not know where it was coming from.”
“We packed three days of clothes, just like everyone else,” and evacuated to Houston, says Tran. Eventually, they went to live with family in Fremont, California. Tran attended an all-boys Jesuit school in New Orleans but enrolled in high school at a public school in Fremont. “It was coed,” he says, laughing. “I was ecstatic.”
With the restaurant all but unscathed by Katrina, Tran’s parents returned to New Orleans two months after the storm to begin the rebuilding process. “Our parents brought all of our clothes back to California, and we started washing them, and—oh, my God—just all the mold. They were all so moldy.”
Today located off a busy stretch of byway, Dong Phuong’s restaurant space and bakery offer markedly different experiences. In the bakery, banh mi, bun, and baked goods are sold by the hundreds in a densely packed fluorescent room so consistently squeezed with people it’s difficult to find space to linger for long. The restaurant, on the other hand, is more spacious, with low lighting, jewel-toned paintings, and gold-flecked decor encouraging diners to linger while enjoying their bubble teas and fish cakes.
The second home for New Orleans’ Vietnamese population is across the Mississippi River on the Westbank, where the city’s best resources for Vietnamese spices and ingredients and its most eclectic menu offerings all exist just beyond the bend in the river. Nine Roses Café—a Westbank favorite—has seen the recent crescendo of interest in Vietnamese cuisine as a time to expand its business.
“Growing up, Vietnamese food was never really popular until after Hurricane Katrina,” said Jeannie Nguyen, 18, whose grandmother—known as Mama Tu—founded Nine Roses Café after emigrating from Vietnam in the 1980s. “The Chinese food on the menu was popular, but not Vietnamese food. Gradually after Katrina, people started realizing that Vietnamese cuisine is delicious. For me, it hit me suddenly because my friends and everyone around me started liking Vietnamese food. For the most part [before that] it was unknown.”
The opening of Nine Roses’ second location in the French Quarter this spring marked a cresting point in a decadelong expansion of Vietnamese restaurants. Nguyen’s family had been looking for an opportunity to expand into a more central space and stumbled on the perfect location for rent in the former home of a Creole restaurant on Conti Street, surrounded by antiques shops and old-line fine dining hubs.
All at once, the culinary riches of the Vietnamese community—long relegated to nooks and pockets—were smack-dab in the city’s touristy heart. With the hubbub of Bourbon Street just blocks away, it’s not unusual now to catch a glimpse of sunburned out-of-towners slurping a (hangover-curing) bowl of meatball pho. The menu at the French Quarter location may be smaller than the expansive, 200-plus list of original heirloom recipes served on the Westbank, but it’s developing a similarly loyal following.
While Nine Roses incorporates New Orleans ingredients—including crawfish and New Orleans–style spices—into many of its dishes, the tide runs both ways. “Yesterday, my family and I went to [James Beard Award–winning seafood restaurant] Peche,” Nguyen says, “and we noticed that there’s a shrimp roll on the menu that they said was made in a Vietnamese style. I don’t see that anywhere else I go [outside New Orleans].”
Tran has had similar experiences when dining out: “I’m pretty sure that Oxalis [a popular Bywater restaurant] uses our bread—you can tell because of the dots on the bottom from the tray. I was like, ‘This bread is so good! Wait, hold on....’ ”
A decade after the storm, it’s not difficult to find crossroads where Vietnamese and Creole flavor profiles intersect. This culinary doppelgänger effect becomes most evident when the respective cuisines’ two-star sandwiches—the po’boy and the banh mi—are lined up side by side.
With apologies to the cold-cut-packed muffuletta, po’boys have long been the top-tier poster child for sandwich culture in New Orleans. The lunchtime favorite typically features a crackly baguette stuffed with meaty fillers, ranging from sloppy roast beef to hot ham and cheese, dressed up with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, and mayonnaise. Over the past decade, though, the banh mi, which is composed of similarly flaky French bread stuffed with succulent proteins and spicy accoutrements, has started to rival its kissing cousin in popularity, with hungry diners eager to embrace something that’s equal parts familiar and novel.
Dong Phuong’s perfectly spongy, crusty bread, used for both po’boys and banh mi citywide, has played a large role in helping merge the two sandwich cultures. It’s difficult to imagine the creations at Killer Po-Boys—one of the city’s most innovative po’boy shops, serving up sweet potato and glazed pork belly sandwiches with equal aplomb since 2013—without Dong Phuong’s airy bread as a canvas.
There’s still room for Vietnamese food’s reach to diversify across the city. Nguyen hopes to see the new wave of neighborhood restaurants move beyond pho and rice, offering some of the more complicated—but customary—soup and fish preparations traditional to Vietnamese culture. If New Orleanians want to continue immersing themselves in one of the world’s most nuanced dining traditions, they’ll likely have to continue to push their palates into delicious, uncharted territory.
More-diverse dining rooms aside, Tran thinks the day-to-day effect on the Vietnamese community isn’t much different from what it was before the storm. In the last decade, a number of parishes, most notably Jefferson and St. Bernard, have seen an uptick in Vietnamese populations, and while the number has gone down in Orleans, it dropped at a slower rate than for other groups. The community has yet to be integrated into New Orleans on the level of the banh mi; even Joseph Cao ended up resigning from Congress. While Tran believes the biggest change is in taste, he’s convinced that slowly but surely, the rest is following.
“People are more open-minded now, definitely,” Tran says. “Pre-Katrina, for example, people were scared of fish sauce. Now, people aren’t scared of fish sauce. It’s better for the cuisine.”