The Vietnamese dish pho ga sounds exotic on the Western ear, but call it chicken noodle soup -- albeit one helped along with fresh herbs and vegetables and hot sauce added at the table -- and it rings of hearth and home.
Chicken noodle soup, as any practitioner in home remedies will attest, is good for what ails you. A steaming bowl of pho ga and other classics of the Vietnamese cookbook also have restorative powers. When served in the heart of the city's resurgent Vietnamese community by people rebuilding a storm-shattered neighborhood, it turns out these dishes can even soothe a heart set to aching by post-Katrina New Orleans.
The eastern New Orleans neighborhood known as Versailles has long been an enclave of Vietnamese immigrants and their children. Today, Versailles is an island of hopeful progress amid the swath of devastation around it, and, as is typical in neighborhoods across the city, restaurants are helping lead the charge.
Head down Chef Menteur Highway past the grotesque flood damage to apartment complexes, car dealerships, churches and subdivisions, past woodsy stands of wind-whipped trees and out toward NASA's Michoud rocket plant, and suddenly the wording on roadside business signs changes from English to Vietnamese. That was remarkable before the storm; what's extraordinary now is that many of these businesses are open, including almost all of the Vietnamese restaurants clustered here.
Many of the homes in Versailles were flooded, but the neighborhood is buzzing with activity as people rebuild. Most of the businesses are located on or close to Chef Menteur Highway, where a slight rise in elevation brought them just inches above the floodwater that inundated other parts of the neighborhood. Several business owners here say the only water they took was from the wake of trucks pushing through the flooded roads.
That was the case at Gia Long, a large restaurant and karaoke club tucked into the corner of a strip mall on Michoud Boulevard. Spared from flooding, the restaurant has been serving both its lengthy menu of Vietnamese specialties along with the post-storm addition of po-boys, fried seafood platters and Chinese-American lunch specials. Contractors in heavy flannel coats and Confederate-flag bandanas wolf down lunches of the New Orleans-style fare while Vietnamese crews juggle cell phones and chopsticks over such culinary exotica as shark fin soup, crepes stuffed with mung bean sprouts and helmet-sized bowls of chao -- a rice porridge concoction with meat or seafood, green onions and crumbled bacon suspended in its slightly gelatinous body.
Here, too, is the heart-mending pho ga, the chicken noodle soup with its almost-too-pretty-to-eat sprigs of purplish basil, piles of crisp sprouts and sliced hot peppers. Next door, Michoud Seafood is open again as well, selling boiled crawfish, shrimp and crabs by the pound.
Mixing cuisines is common now at restaurants in Versailles, which is serving as the lunch counter for many people working in the area who face a dearth of other food options. Tucked into an Alcee Fortier Boulevard strip mall, the restaurant Anh Hong responded with a lunch buffet of quick-serve Chinese-American food but was planning to resume its normal Vietnamese menu this month. Nearby, the small cafe Bien Tinh now serves Vietnamese dishes, Chinese food and American fare.
Pho Bang, one of several local outposts of the national chain of Vietnamese noodle shops, is back open on Chef Menteur Highway serving its varieties of beef and chicken pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Formerly a coffee shop, CafŽ Trinh Quyen reopened on Alcee Fortier Boulevard as a full-service restaurant catering to the area's returned residents and workers. Though it helps to speak Vietnamese when ordering -- or ask bilingual patrons to translate -- the payoff can be a lunch that seems an almost unreasonable bargain. Order a banh mi -- a sandwich of cold cuts or rotisserie chicken with loads of fresh vegetables and hot peppers on Vietnamese-style French bread -- plus an iced espresso and walk out as a respected big-tipper for leaving behind the change on a $5 bill.
Banh mi sandwiches are the specialty at another newcomer to Versailles since the storm, Banh Mi Sao Mi on Chef Menteur Highway. For the best of these sandwiches, both in quality and variety of options, head straight to the source: Dong Phoung Oriental Bakery, which produces the light, crusty bread for many local Vietnamese restaurants. The bakery reopened in January and the connected restaurant next door is expected to reopen later in March.
Yet to re-emerge in Versailles is the farmers market that cropped up in the parking lot and courtyard of an Alcee Fortier Boulevard strip mall before the crack of dawn on Saturdays. This was where local residents sold the Asian vegetables they grew on tiny plots of land behind the shopping center, plus livestock and seafood. Some of that produce is still available today at two Asian groceries -- Viet-My and Que Huong -- that have reopened on opposite sides of Alcee Fortier Boulevard.
At the meat counter in Que Huong one afternoon, the butcher used a huge cleaver to gingerly slice an apple for a small boy at his side and explained that those who have returned to the neighborhood are too busy rebuilding to get their gardens in order and host the pre-dawn Saturday markets. Still, at the front of the store, women shoppers in traditional Vietnamese garb can be found crouching before bins of tiny bok choy, Chinese broccoli and banana tree pods trussed together with string, testing the quality with their hands and talking with one another in the rapid-fire native tongue, much like they did at their market before the storm.