According to Asian astrology, 2013 is the Year of the Snake. In Vietnamese culture, the snake is lucky, so this year promises to be one of prosperity.
At New Year, Vietnamese custom is to eat very specific foods such as citrus fruit, chicken and banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice with pork called “Mooncakes.” Owing to this being the Year of the Snake, some traditionalists eat snake. I’ve eaten snake. It does NOT taste like chicken. I did not feel lucky for having eaten snake.
The Vietnamese New Year, called Tet, happened Feb. 10, and the celebration in eastern New Orleans took place last weekend. But the local love of Vietnamese cuisine goes strong year-round, and there is more to the menu than the spicy soup called pho and the popular sandwiches, banh mi.
In fact, the breadth of dishes and flavors is broad, with specific restaurants known for a specific dish or two (or three). Here’s how to get lucky:
Banh Xeo: The “Saigon pancake” resembles a folded omelet, but is bright yellow from turmeric, pan-fried crisp and tasting softly of coconut.
Inside the pancake, cool bean sprouts top shards of plain roasted pork and shrimp and maybe a scattering of green onion.
One of the finest renditions of banh xeo is served at Hoa Hong (9 Roses; 110 Stephens; Gretna; (504) 366-7665). The garnishes — pickled carrots and turnips, fresh cucumber, lettuce and herbs — are offered alongside, as is a bowl of tangy-sweet-spicy nuoc mam sauce, for splashing or dipping.
Ask for mam nem, a pineapple-fermented fish sauce that is gorgeous with banh xeo. At Magasin (4201 Magazine St.; (504) 896-7611), there is a twist on traditional banh xeo showcasing grilled pork tucked into the “omelet.”
The grilled meat flavor adds a smokiness that plays well with the slightly sweet pancake.
Bo kho:A stew or soup of beef and carrots, long-cooked in a coffee-dark broth spiced with cinnamon and star anise, to name some.
The process is a labor of love and one of the most tender, flavorful bowls is from Pho Hoa (1308 Manhattan Blvd., Harvey; (504) 302-2094); it is their signature.
Topped with slivered white onions and a tangle of cilantro, this dish is eaten using both spoon and chopsticks and comes served with noodles or a loaf of crusty Vietnamese French bread alongside (banh mi bo kho).
The enormously popular Tan Dinh (1705 Lafayette St. Gretna; (504) 361-8008), great for chef-spotting, adds coconut milk to its bo kho broth — a nice tweak to the bowl that adds a bit of depth and an almost curry-like vibe.
Com (rice plates):Crushed jasmine rice forms the foundation for myriad choices of meats, vegetables, egg cake, etc. The “mac-daddy” of plates is “com tom bi suon cha trung,” a rice plate with a bit of everything — marinated grilled pork chop, a nest of room temp pork skin, shredded pork, chewy strands of gluten and a dusting of rice powder and garlic powder (this is “bi”), egg custard cake (composed of pork, mushrooms and glass noodles) and garnishes of sliced cucumber and tomato, pickled carrots and daikon radish, sautéed diced scallions and of course nuoc mam sauce.
Pho Tau Bay (113 Westbank Expressway, Gretna, (504) 368-9846); Pho Nola (3320 Transcontinental Dr., Metairie; (504) 941-7690); and Tan Dinh (1705 Lafayette St. Gretna), (504) 361-8008), have the rice plates down to an art — big, filling meals.
Poultry: Tan Dinh is the mother ship of roasted chicken, duck and quail. They roast the birds low and slow to burnished, crisp-skin, tender meat goodness and serve them to be eaten by hand with French bread or rice (patties, cakes or steamed).
The sauce, more properly “jus,” is glorious, rendered from the roast drippings and a touch of fat for richness.
Over at Pho Tau Bay, the “com ga roti,” deep-fried Cornish hen, is plated with a mound of steamed rice and a secret honey mustard sauce that pulls the plate together.
Created by the elders of the family that own PTB, the sauce is a signature, a secret and stupendous.
Vegetarian:There is a surprising number of incredible vegetarian dishes on which to feast at virtually every Vietnamese restaurant.
“Rau Chay” signifies vegetarian dishes as in “soup rau chay,” which is veggie pho.
Most vegetable-based dishes are bulked out with the obvious — vegetables (carrots, cabbages, onions, bean sprouts) and tofu, often fried to provide heft.
Known for their spicy tofu and tofu spring rolls is Lily’s Café (1813 Magazine St., New Orleans, (504) 599-9999) on “lower” Magazine Street. Frosty’s Café (3400 Cleary, Metairie, (504) 888-9600), whirls some of the finest fresh fruit smoothies and bubble teas, and it also prepares a big, bold vegetarian pho.
An outpost of Tan Dinh, to be called Ba Chi Canteen, is opening soon on Maple Street. In fact, the popular cuisine is “snaking” its way into every neighborhood and suburb of metro New Orleans.
And that’s lucky for everyone.
Lorin Gaudin is a New Orleans-based food writer with a passion for all things food and drink. She can be reached at FiveOhFork@gmail.com.