A new generation flips the script on traditional Vietnamese fare

With new Vietnamese restaurants proliferating across town, New Orleans has grown more accustomed to the roster of staple dishes shared by practically all of them. But don’t get too comfortable with the line up.

Just as more people are learning the nuances of the fragrant beef soup called pho, the rice noodle salads called bun and lushly dressed banh mi sandwiches, a new generation of Vietnamese restaurateurs is flipping the script.

“We love the old dishes, but they’re not really up for change. The younger generations now want to explore a little more, so that’s why you’re seeing different dishes,” said Le Thu Nguyen, manager of Pho Orchid Express, which opened over the summer in Metairie.

These restaurants are introducing cross-cultural creations like spring rolls layered sushi-style with raw fish, steamed rolls filled with everything from roasted duck to soft shell crab and something called “gyoza nacho.” That would be a plate of Japanese-style gyoza dumplings under interwoven patterns of sweet and spicy sauces, raw jalapeno and fried noodles, a dish that shares the exuberance of nachos if not exactly the flavors.

“I’m a foodie. Wherever I go to eat, I like to try new things,” said Phat Vu, who created the gyoza nacho at his new Uptown restaurant, Ba Chi Canteen. “That’s why I wanted to use some new ideas with our foods.”

It all might sound like part of the long-running Asian fusion trend practiced these days by everyone from fine-dining chefs to chain restaurants. But the key difference to what New Orleans is now seeing hinges on who is driving the change. They are predominantly young Vietnamese people who are informed both by the food traditions their families brought directly from southeast Asia and the broader, food-crazed culture they grew up with in southeast Louisiana.

For instance, Vu worked at his family’s more traditional Gretna restaurant Tan Dinh for years and later attended culinary school in Dallas before opening Ba Chi Canteen last spring. Another example is 29-year-old New Orleans East native Jimmy Tran.

“At home, my mom just cooked Vietnamese food for me all day long — rice, pho and vermicelli noodles,” Tran said. “But then you see what else is happening in restaurants, and think ‘we can work in some of those ideas, too.’ ”

Tran will be giving that a whirl at Mint Modern Vietnamese Bistro & Bar, which he plans to open later this year at 5100 Freret St. He’ll serve pho and banh mi, but also burgers with kimchi and “chicken and green waffles,” flavored with coconut milk and tropical pandan leaves to merge a soul food classic with a typical Vietnamese sweet treat.

Mint will have a full bar, and Tran hopes it will become another social spot along Freret Street’s busy restaurant row.

“I’m just interested in being more creative with the idea of what a Vietnamese restaurant can be,” Tran said.

Others have been working similar terrain. In the Riverbend, Jazmine Café has served a traditional menu for years but last fall started making spring rolls with raw fish, barbecue eel and other sushi bar fixings. And in May, the new Pho Bistreaux opened with novelties like fried spring rolls swaddled in fresh rice paper, essentially grafting two traditional snacks together. The same kitchen serves tacos and sliders filled with customary banh mi fillings, like grilled pork with pickled radish and carrots.

Some changes go beyond the menu. The Uptown hotspot Magasin Café, for instance, serves a familiar Vietnamese menu in a much sleeker package than the typical pho shop, with a design-savvy touch around the dining room and more composed presentations on the plate. In Metairie, the newer Pho Orchid Express was planned from the start as a deli-style, quick-serve alternative to its more traditional predecessor Pho Orchid Restaurant, which owner Dave Thu Nguyen opened in 2009 a few miles away.

Customers pay at the counter as they order at Pho Orchid Express, and they help themselves to soft drinks while the kitchen whips together dishes from a shorter, streamlined menu.

“It’s about who we cater to now,” said manager Le Thu Nguyen. “Ordinarily, Vietnamese people share our meals. You see groups at big tables eating these traditional dishes meant to be shared. But as we serve our food to more people from other cultures, we’re seeing how they eat and it’s more individual.

“We’re serving different people now, so our restaurants are changing too.”