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In Search of New Orleans' Vietnamese Soul

The city's culinary fabric is woven with pho, bun, and banh xeo

On a recent Thursday morning, I walked into Magasin Kitchen, a two-month-old restaurant in New Orleans' Central Business District. It was ten minutes before noon, but even so, each of the 39 seats was occupied. On nearly every table sat large white bowls filled with golden broth, billowing aromatic steam. Any of a dozen restaurants could begin an illustration of Vietnamese cuisine as an indelible part of dining in New Orleans, but let's start here, with the newest arrival.

Visually, Magasin Kitchen is an unlikely poster child for New Orleans' Vietnamese soul. Its exterior, a neutral, impassive face of steel girding and reflective windows, gives no indication of what type of food is being offered, and neither does the casual-mod decor: dangling, bowl-shaped light fixtures, concrete floors and walls stained in splotches resembling radar pics of swirling weather patterns. But the menu is unmistakable. It lists variations on dishes like pho, bun, and banh mi under headers without descriptors or clarifications, no explanatory annotations like "beef noodle soup," "rice noodle salad," or "Vietnamese sandwiches."

Magasin Kitchen's customers know the Southeast Asian classics delivered as agreeable, mainstreamed versions of their Platonic ideals.

Here, the customers — multigenerational, white-collar, mostly non-Asian —€” don't require them. They know these Southeast Asian classics delivered as agreeable, mainstreamed versions of their Platonic ideals. Hints of cinnamon and star anise in the pho breezed across the palate like a passing thought. A banh mi's baguette crunched mightily, the cilantro, carrot, and cucumber cool against hot grilled pork, but the overall flavor could have used a pungent swipe of pâté, a common addition.

The culinary style may suffer slightly for its dedication to approachability, but the restaurant's location tells its own story. Magasin Kitchen is in a new mixed-use development, the Paramount at South Market, a $450 million by-the-numbers complex more readily associated with sprawling Sunbelt metropolises like Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta than with the sumptuous, centuries-old architecture of New Orleans. If you are going to put this sort of thing in this city, the Central Business District —€” wedged between the French Quarter and the Garden District and full of glassy office towers —€” is the logical place to put it, and the Paramount brings vitality to a stretch previously home mostly to neglected parking lots.

As with most developments of this sort, the planners are trying to draw in tenants and foot traffic through canny food choices, bringing in local restaurant stars known for broadly appealing, feel-good foods. Within a few dozen yards of Magasin Kitchen, you'll find the second location of Company Burger, which arguably crafts the city's finest cheeseburger, and Willa Jean, a bakery and cafe in the empire of chef-restaurateur John Besh,which showcases the breads, cookies, and other killer desserts of two stellar pastry chefs, Lisa Marie White and Kelly Fields.

Magasin Kitchen fits right into the theme, in more ways than one. Like Company Burger and Willa Jean, it's tied to a recognizable brand: it is the second restaurant operated by New Orleans native Kim Nguyen. She opened her first, Magasin Vietnamese Cafe, in the residential Uptown area in 2012, its name a play on its location on Magazine Street, as well as the location's history as a magasin (French for "store"); Nguyen's family ran a corner grocery in the same spot before she transformed it. But also because, like burgers and sticky buns, Nguyen's pho hits familiar pleasure buttons for the NOLA crowds. In this city, Vietnamese food is now part of the culinary DNA.


What's happening with Vietnamese food in New Orleans is the same thing that occurred after millions of Italians immigrated to the U.S. between 1890 and 1910, or when thousands of Cubans poured into South Florida in the 1960s. Up and down the East Coast, simmering Sunday gravy at home begat red sauce joints. Miamians came to squabble endlessly over who makes the crispest, meltiest cubano mixto. And the flavors, the collages of ingredients, never stay isolated to immigrant enclaves: They wander to other kitchens, they adapt in other hands. NOLA's Vietnamese acculturation can be witnessed right now, rivetingly, in real time. Over the last several years a blitz of entrepreneurism, coupled with the dining public's broadening tastes, fast-tracked the city's acceptance of the cuisine.

Both Vietnam and Louisiana were once colonies of France. Neither culture ever gave up on the baguette.

Other parts of the country —” Northern and Southern California, Southeast Texas (particularly Houston) —” have much larger Vietnamese populations than Louisiana, and their own thriving restaurant cultures to match. How fascinating, though, to savor the distinctively clean, bright, and sometimes funky flavors of Vietnam in New Orleans: the city with the richest sense of culinary place in America. In some ways, it's a surprisingly natural fit. After all, both Vietnam and Louisiana were once colonies of France. Neither culture ever gave up on the baguette. And the Vietnamese emphasis on fresh vegetables and citrus does feel like a reset for the palate after binging on gumbo and jambalaya.

And so Southeast Asian nuances are echoing through every tier of the city's dining scene, in ways subtle and overt. You can see it in the half-dozen Vietnamese restaurants, including Magasin, that have set up shop along the bustling St. Charles streetcar line. (One recommendation: the shrimp pho at modest Lilly's Cafe in the Lower Garden District.) Just over a year ago, I remember noting the influence at tony, modern Southern Coquette, where the Southeast Asian additions of cilantro and pickled chilies revved up a rice bowl with smoky catfish. The homage to banh mi could not be more obvious at playful Killer Poboys, where Sriracha aioli, daikon, carrot, cucumber, and a crowning tuft of herbs zing the excellent Gulf shrimp sandwich.

Pork bun and interior at Pho Bang; Exterior and duck salad at Nine Roses Cafe

The steady, organic assimilation of Vietnamese food into the Big Easy lexicon is well documented. It began in earnest forty years ago, when refugees from Vietnam began arriving in South Louisiana after the 1975 fall of Saigon. The similarly soupy climates shared by these two corners of the world didn't attract immigrants so much as the sponsorship offered by the Archdiocese of New Orleans did, as well as the allure of easy work fishing and shrimping along the Gulf of Mexico. The newcomers eventually began establishing communities on two edges of town: the area known as the West Bank, across the Mississippi River and south of the city center, and eastern New Orleans, about 16 miles northeast of the French Quarter and 5 miles inland from Lake Pontchartrain.

By the 1980s and '90s, established restaurants served the booming Vietnamese population and also vied for the attention of adventuresome diners from other neighborhoods. A place like Tan Dinh on the West Bank presented an encyclopedic menu that went far beyond crossover classics like pho and goi cuon, the summer rolls of vegetables and shrimp or pork rolled in rice-flour wrappers. You could dive into quail with dipping sauces of salt and pepper and lime or com (steamed rice dishes) spread with one of two-dozen options of meat (perhaps a grilled pork chop, or chicken wings splashed with fish sauce). The place is still booming. So is nearby Kim Son, which decades ago began serving both Vietnamese and Chinese dishes in a bid to lure diverse customers. Clay pot catfish enrobed in a savory-sweet caramel sauce, a comforting Vietnamese standard, can be ordered alongside General Tso's chicken. In eastern New Orleans, a popular bakery called Dong Phuong restaurant made the leap to market its banh mi as "Vietnamese po' boys."

A new generation of Vietnamese-Americans restaurateurs are looking beyond the boundaries of their old neighborhoods.

As it did to most of the city, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans' Vietnamese neighborhoods. Yet in the decade since, the close-knit communities demonstrated profound resilience. Businesses rebounded. A study by Tulane University in 2009 estimated that two-thirds of New Orleans's displaced Vietnamese population came back to the area. And a new generation of Vietnamese-Americans restaurateurs began looking beyond the boundaries of their old neighborhoods, and toward a current era of multicultural experimentation. Ba Chi Canteen in Uptown, for example, opened in 2013, run by members of the family who operate West Bank's beloved Tan Dinh. Their menu touts pho and banh mi, but also dips into Korean territory (beef short rib with kimchi) and features "bacos," the restaurant's term for the stuffed bao popularized by New York's Momofuku. Ba Chi fills the spongy, open-face bao with whimsies like soft-shell crab in sweet chile sauce and coconut curry shrimp with sweet potatoes.


When I set out to New Orleans with a few days of determined Vietnamese feasting in mind, each of my half-dozen food writer friends who live in the city proved invested and ardent on the subject. They all had lists for me, not only of places to try, but specific dishes to order. Buoyed by their collective wisdom, I headed out to eat.

At Dong Phuong, the bakery in eastern New Orleans, I bypassed the small restaurant dining room and straight to the banh mi counter. There, a woman manning the sandwich station worked to her own rhythm: spread the mayo, lay the meats, add the veggies, wrap it up. I watched her do this over and over with the same syncopation. Launching into a banh mi filled with soft pork meatballs was like tasting a four-part harmony: the meat boomed the bass, carrots and cucumber cut through with tenor clarity, cilantro took the high notes, and, interestingly, the mayo brought it all together, carrying the silky melody. Just as righteous: the bakery's savory pastries, especially a crown-shaped number filled with roasted pork and saucy, caramelized onions.

A mile away, Ba Mien ("Three Regions") takes pride in serving less common dishes from Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnam. One standout was nem nuong khanh hoa, a platter of ground pork grilled into long, thin patties served with green banana, mango, and vegetables, all of it meant to be wrapped tightly in dampened rice paper wrappers. Along the same highway, Pho Bang surprised me with the most flavor-smacked bun salad of my trip: The cool noodles hid under a tarp of grilled pork strips, snappy shrimp, and bits of spring roll wrapper snipped into squares, with a nuoc cham dressing on the side that thrummed with lime and fish sauce.

Banh mi at Magasin Kitchen

Out on the West Bank, a group of six of us gathered for a spread at the venerable Tan Dinh, which resides in a squat brick building. For anyone craving a comprehensive deep dive into traditional Vietnamese cooking beyond noodle dishes, this is the place to come. We homed in on the list of house specialties. Roasted duck arrived bronzed, with a fried rice cake on the side to sop up the jus at the bottom of the platter. Scattered cashews provided a mellow, onion-rich goat curry with welcome crunch. An herb-flecked chicken salad in ginger sauce would effortlessly temper Louisiana's savage summer heat. (It was still wonderful in winter.) Unremarkable battered frogs' legs were skippable, but they were quickly forgotten in consideration of an intense infusion of lemongrass and chile permeated squares of pleasantly chewy tofu.

Nine Roses Cafe opened in the French Quarter last summer with a relatively succinct list of rice and noodle dishes, soups, and salads. During my lunch, the room seemed filled with laid-back locals; my hunch is that, in this part of town, the tourists take more interest in the trout meunière amandine at Galatoire's three blocks away. I found the cafe's dishes like pulled duck salad light and precise. Banh xeo —€” the savory rice flour crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, glass noodles, and vegetables, all meant to be cut into chunks and wrapped in lettuce leaves —€” crackled and squished in all the right ways.

The cafe is the offspring of Nine Roses Restaurant, another of the West Bank strongholds from the 1990s. The original's menu enumerates well over 200 dishes, including things from the Chinese-American restaurant playbook like beef with broccoli and seafood bird's nest. The version of the banh xeo at the West Bank Nine Roses showed even more finesse in its textural contrasts. And its kitchen flaunted mojo with an item not available at the cafe: a hot pot of fried catfish and pickled mustard greens, shot through with sweet-and-sour tang from tamarind and pineapple broth. It didn't escape my notice that the soup's two dominant ingredients, fish and greens, are as at home in Southeast Asian recipes as they are in Cajun Country cookery.


The old-guard stalwarts of New Orleans' Vietnamese culinary community have hardly retreated to irrelevance, but the surest sign of the cuisine's deep roots in the city are evident in restaurants like Magasin Kitchen and Lilly's Cafe, knowingly modern undertakings that take a streamlined approach to serving quickly prepared, quickly consumed Vietnamese fare: straightforward menus, intentional mass appeal. It's not all fast-casual, though. Two other new arrivals to the city's scene point to the wider possibilities of Vietnamese influences in New Orleans dining, in excitingly different ways.

Michael Gulotta previously held the chef de cuisine position at John Besh's grand flagship, August. In early January 2014 he struck out on his own with MoPho, a restaurant that aims to meld Vietnamese and Creole sensibilities. (Its tagline: "The Mekong Delta meets the Mississippi Delta.") Gulotta is not Vietnamese, but in his time in New Orleans, he has respectfully absorbed the culture's culinary principles, evident in his Vietnamese-inflected creations. I sidestepped some of the menu's the more outré efforts, like chicken and waffles with buttered fish sauce caramel, but threw myself into a persuasive po' boy-banh mi hybrid constructed with the requisite vegetables and mayo but filled with both fried shrimp and thin slices of locally cured ham. And I loved the broth of Gulotta's pho, tingly with spices but not overpowering, savory oxtail mingling with the noodles. This kind of cross-pollination can often fall flat on its face, but Gulotta has the chops to personalize Vietnamese touchstones without falsifying them. Sold.

Bill Addison/Eater

Chicken wings and the shrimp po'boy at MoPho; crawfish ramen at Kin

And then there's Hieu Than, who opened Kin last year in a small, canary yellow converted house. The building sits by its lonesome on what amounts to a median between streets in the Gert Town area, near Xavier University. Than, who is Vietnamese, grew up in eastern New Orleans; his family ran several businesses in the neighborhood, including a pharmacy, a nail salon, and an American-style fast food operation. He had no interest in cooking until he attended a birthday dinner at elegant Gautreau's; there, chef Sue Zemenick's signature sweetbreads with crab meat wowed him enough to send him towards the kitchen as a career path. After Katrina, Than enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York, and when he returned to New Orleans he asked Zemenick if he could intern with her, and she hired him.

Striking out on his own in 2015, Than and his crew (including his business partner Nate Nguyen, and his wife Mei, who waits on customers at night) compose menus that have an Asian-inspired core, but cleave to no one specific tradition or menu. Lunch means variations on ramen —” I relished a special that included stuffed crawfish, with a broth of crawfish bisque —” and plates like roasted duck with stir-fried vegetables over rice with cashew puree. The theme for dinner changes monthly. In January, Than was inspired by in Mediterranean flavors (green harissa and labne showed up with a goat curry) because lately he's been frequenting Shaya, chef Alon Shaya's blockbuster Israeli restaurant.

Kin seats only 25, and the operation has an earnest, improvisational vibe, but it's a joy to eat there. I could pluck out Vietnamese flavors here and there among all the others: lemongrass braised leeks in a chicken and barley entree, the mild goat curry that recalled the one I'd eaten at Tan Dinh. I asked Than about his interest in Vietnamese cooking, and he told me he was happy to see all the new the restaurants popping up around town, but that he's too interested in understanding cuisines from around the globe to settle on one tradition. He hopes that's how more people around town will want to eat, too. "I'm excited for a time when New Orleans is known as an amazing food town even beyond the étouffée and gumbo parade," he said. I am too —€” and it's already starting to happen.

ESSENTIALS

Magasin Kitchen: 611 O’Keefe Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 571-5677
Magasin Vietnamese Cafe: 4201 Magazine Street, New Orleans, (504) 986-7611, magasincafe.com
Lilly's Cafe: 1813 Magazine Street, New Orleans, (504) 599-9999
Killer Poboys: 811 Conti Street (back of the Erin Rose Bar), New Orleans, (504) 252-6745; 219 Dauphine Street, New Orleans, (504) 462-2731, killerpoboys.com
Tan Dinh: 1705 Lafayette Street, Gretna, (504) 361-8008
Kim Son: 349 Whitney Avenue, Gretna, (504) 366-2489, kimsonnola.com
Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery: 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, (504) 254-0214, dpbanhmi.com
Namese: 4077 Tulane Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 483-8899, namese.net
Nine Roses Cafe: 620 Conti Street, New Orleans, (504) 324-9450, ninerosesrestaurant.com
Nine Roses: 1000 Stephens Street, Gretna, (504) 366-7665, ninerosesrestaurant.com
Ba Mien: 13235 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, (504) 255-0500
Pho Bang: 14367 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, (504) 254-3929
MoPho: 514 City Park Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 482-6845, mophonola.com
Kin: 4600 Washington Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 304-8557

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