Peter Nguyen had a big idea for the little storefront next to his family’s Texaco station in Metairie, but his mother, Mary, didn’t think much of it.

A po-boy shop would be fine, she thought. But Peter, then 25, wanted one that would meld the New Orleans po-boys and Vietnamese banh mi he grew up alternately eating. Between the crusty bread, he was sure there was even room for Korean bulgogi beef, Japanese chicken katsu and Chinese char siu barbecue pork.

“I like to be creative when I cook, that’s the way my brain works,” said Peter Nguyen. “I like to make food that gets people excited.”

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Chef Peter Nguyen adds sauce to fried shrimp as he makes a honey sriracha shrimp at Banh Mi Boys restaurant on Airline Drive in Metairie on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

The result is Banh Mi Boys, the counter-service eatery Nguyen opened in 2015 under his parents’ skeptical eyes as they ran the adjacent gas station on a busy suburban intersection. 

Now the parking fills with people coming back for Banh Mi Boys' specialty sandwiches and its exuberant cheese fries topped with oyster Rockefeller sauce or Vietnamese bo ne, a sizzling version of steak and eggs.

A generation of immigrants opened New Orleans’ eyes to the pleasures of Vietnamese cooking, gradually making pho and vermicelli noodle bowls into common cravings across the city.

Today, members of the second generation, native-born Vietnamese New Orleanians are adding different perspectives at their own restaurants, creating a Viet-New Orleans hybrid.

Drawing on traditional flavors, but often breaking from traditional forms, they’re making new niches for Vietnamese food that align with the rhythm of New Orleans food, from casual eateries to a corner store lunch and a crawfish boil.

“We’re a generation that learned about Vietnamese food from our families and also learned about New Orleans food from growing up here,” said Phat Vu, chef and co-owner of Ba Chi Canteen on Maple Street.

Vu is part of an influential local Vietnamese restaurant family. One sister runs Tan Dinh in Gretna, one of the best local noodle houses; another is co-chef at Café Minh in Mid-City, a standout upscale fusion restaurant.

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A spread of roti flatbread tacos, tofu pho and an appetizer platter fills the table at Ba Chi Canteen in New Orleans.

When Phat and his wife Quinn Nguyen opened Ba Chi Canteen in 2013 they started with flavors they grew up eating but added original dishes based on the street food, small plates and shared appetizers they seek out when they dine out.

Soft, chewy steamed buns or crinkly, buttery-crisp roti flatbreads are converted into Vietnamese-style tacos with ingredients that could have come from a corner po-boy shop. Fried shrimp and oysters or links of alligator sausage are dressed with crunchy radish and carrot, fresh cilantro and aioli, just like traditional banh mi.

From boil to roast beef

Viet-Cajun crawfish is a cross-cultural food trend that, from hotbeds in Houston and California, has caught national attention. The style, with boiled crawfish coated in rich garlic butter and other flavors, began registering in New Orleans only recently. Now, a handful of purveyors are building a small niche in the city’s own robust boiled seafood market.

A new player this season is TD Seafood Pho House, which essentially combines a Vietnamese noodle shop with a boiled seafood operation. In the back of a Harvey strip mall, TD serves a lush pho made with shaved filet mignon and “salt and pepper” stir-fried crabs. It also fields a menu of seasonal boiled seafood awash in garlic sauce, with boiled corn, potatoes and sausage links tossed in, as per the New Orleans norm.

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Louisiana blue crabs get a garlicky coating with egg and peppers and herbs for a salt baked crab dish at TD Seafood Pho House in Harvey.

TD proprietor Gia Tran said his family ran a more traditional restaurant called Hoang Gia in the largely-Vietnamese neighborhood of Village de l’Est. It had a much larger menu, one aimed at providing everything his parents’ generation expected to find at a traditional restaurant.

“I think the way for the younger generation is to focus in on a few things and find your own way to do them,” said Tran. “In New Orleans, we’re just lucky we have so much seafood. You want to use it and add your own way.”

A little collaboration between the generations accounts for Eat Well Food Store in Mid-City, and its newer food hall spinoff, Eat Well, in downtown’s Pythian Market.

Eat Well was a corner store serving gumbo, po-boys and a few Vietnamese dishes when Triet Tra and her husband Dong Huynh bought it in 2012. Tra gradually began supplanting the New Orleans staples with more of her own Vietnamese cooking.

“At first people only wanted New Orleans food. They didn’t know how we cooked,” said Tra, who grew up in Vietnam. “Then someone would try it and they would bring their friends back, so it’s more and more.”

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A phoritto at Eat Well in the Pythian Market in downtown New Orleans rolls beef pho ingredients in a tortilla.

Her American-born son Phong Huynh convinced her to add a “phoritto” — a tortilla filled with a pho’s beef, rice noodles and herbs, with a cup of broth for dipping. It was a dish that stormed social media a few years ago but had been scarce in New Orleans.

When Huynh opened his own Eat Well stand at the Pythian Market last spring, the phoritto was on the menu next to the devotionally named “mama’s egg rolls” and other traditional dishes.

At the family store, meanwhile, Tra has kept the menu evolving, simply by accommodating what her customers request. The yakamein here is a far more Asian-style soup than the New Orleans standard, made with flat noodles and fat shrimp.

After Tra brought in soft shell crabs for her “regular” New Orleans-style po-boys, they quickly made the leap to banh mi, prepared on oversized 12-inch loaves from the local Hi-Do Bakery.

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Soft shell crabs line a banh mi for a blend of Louisiana and Vietnamese flavors at Eat Well Food Store in New Orleans.

In Metairie, at Banh Mi Boys, Nguyen keeps packing fresh ideas into his crunchy, crusty Dong Phuong Bakery pistolettes.

Ko bho, a Vietnamese beef stew, just had too many similarities to New Orleans-style debris to stay off the menu for long. Tender, meaty strands of beef are sluiced with juice, like po-boy shop roast beef but redolent with star anise, ginger and soy sauce, all seeping into the durable bread and crackling with fresh herbs and fiery peppers.

“My cooking just comes from me. It’s where we come from, but it also comes from knowing there’s a lot more out there,” said Nguyen. “That’s what I want to bring to my city.”

Banh Mi Boys' latest dish might be the most intuitively New Orleans of all: Yesterday's banh mi bread becomes bread pudding, with a purple, green and gold sugar topping for a Carnival-time king cake theme.

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Chef Peter Nguyen adds beef to the top of fries as he makes a bo kho debris with a fried egg at Banh Mi Boys restaurant on Airline Drive in Metairie on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

Ba Chi Canteen

7900 Maple St., 504-373-5628

Banh Mi Boys

5001 Airline Dr., Metairie, 504-510-5360

Eat Well

234 Loyola Ave., 504-481-9599

Eat Well Food Store

2700 Canal St., 504-821-7730

TD Seafood Pho House

1028 Manhattan Blvd., 504-302-1717

 

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.