There was a seedy corner store in my neighborhood before Katrina where one could always get unremarkable sandwiches and occasionally find members of the Vietnamese family who owned the place eating something much better behind the deli counter for their own lunch. Waiting for another cheeseburger po-boy to come off the grill while watching the employees go after bowls of noodles, herbs and broth with chopsticks and a bottle of sriracha hot sauce, I wished the owners would serve their own food instead of another half-hearted take on New Orleans stuff.
More than once I asked if they would consider expanding the menu, though they would demur, explaining that their customers would not like Vietnamese food. Recently, however, I stumbled upon another corner store where the owners are indeed testing the waters for take-out Vietnamese comfort food amid the trappings of grab-and-go convenience.
Eat-Well Food Store opened in April in a new building that sprouted up after Katrina at the corner of Broad and Canal streets. The owners signed up for the state's hopeful "Steps Corner Store Initiative," a program aimed at making fresh fruit and vegetables available in areas lacking major grocery stores. This doesn't mean the inventory excludes popular consumer demand, however, so you need to get past the astounding array of tall-boy beer cans, the packaged donuts and pickled pig lips to find sliced watermelon, fruit salad and a chalkboard offering factoids about the nutritional value of mangoes.
But the real action here is at the deli counter, where cooks tend to a mix of familiar steam-table fare like red beans and stuffed peppers and a menu of satisfying Vietnamese food. There's pho, the beef noodle soup, banh mi, the pint-sized sandwiches crammed with assorted pork products, egg rolls and spring rolls filled with noodles and tofu, and "shaken steak."
This last item might seem like something lost in translation, but it's a classic Vietnamese steak salad more often called "shaking steak" in English or bo luc lac in Vietnamese. Cubes of steak are quickly jiggled (or 'shaken" ) around in a very hot wok and liberally dressed with fish sauce, lime juice and ginger. At Eat-Well, the meat turns out seared, pleasingly chewy and flavorful, like flank steak. It goes over a mix of shredded lettuce, carrots and fried noodles with a lump of jasmine rice on the side and a little pool of sweet mustard sauce taking up one compartment of the Styrofoam tray.
There are a few tables by the beer fridge, but everything is packed to travel at Eat-Well. This proves quite a feat of freight when it comes to the pho. Order a bowl and within a few minutes the kitchen assembles a grocery bag bulging with components: a plastic bowl of pink, practically raw sheets of beef atop a pad of rice noodles, green onions and cilantro; a foam box filled with sprouts, basil, lime and jalapeno slices; and finally, a quart-sized container of cloudy beef broth, all to be combined wherever you settle in for the meal. The broth is mild, and it wants more star anise, more of something essential. But still, it's pho, and it's all trussed up to go from a deli in the middle of New Orleans
Similarly, there are better banh mi around town, notably in Gretna or far out in New Orleans East, but finding one in a convenience store on Canal Street could make your day. Eat-Well uses roasted pork, sweet, red barbecued pork and slices of pale, gelatin-veined pork loaf as the foundation for the fresh cucumbers, radish and carrots that give the sandwich its distinctive crunch and the jalapenos that give its trademark sharp burn.
All this goes on a short loaf from Terrytown's Hi Do Bakery, and this Vietnamese-style French bread also does wonders for other sandwiches. Fried oyster, hot roast beef and fried catfish po-boys, otherwise ordinary, have added intrigue thanks to its crackly, bubbled crust and chewy interior. Best of all is the marinated chicken po-boy. Thin pieces of chicken are flecked with herbs, grill-charred on the edges and piled upon each other so that flaps and bits of it hang out from the loaf.
Apart from the pho addicts who have tracked this place down, most of Eat-Well's customers order from the daily-changing steam-table options. These dishes have more fresh vegetables than usual, but the prime appeal is a three-item lunch for $5. Thursday's Thai Cornish hen is something else, however. Each half-bird portion is deep fried without any coating or batter, so the exterior is heavily seasoned, crispy skin ready for a dunk in the pungent, salty sauce served on the side.
There are usually huge pans of yaka mein and gumbo. The latter is about one-third jasmine rice, one-third roux and one-third meat. The roux is thin like broth and it holds coin after coin of deep red sausage slices, long chunks of chicken thigh meat and miniscule shrimp. A crab claw goes into each cup. The small portion makes a light lunch or a good $3 snack, while the large is something you could ladle around the family dinner table. I can't vouch for its healthfulness, but it certainly tastes like eating well.