9.27.2014

365 Project Day 270: On New Orleans' Food Influences: Vietnamese ~OR~ Vegan MoPho!

Tofu and veggie com at Pho Cam Ly
For folks who haven't spent time in Nola, they might assume that French, Spanish, and Italian foods have had the most influence on New Orleans cuisine.  And they wouldn't be wrong - all of these cultures have played defining roles in creating what is now known as "New Orleans food."

What y'all might not know, however, is that more recently, Vietnamese food and people have helped shape the landscape.  Following the Vietnam War, Vietnamese families and communities began a chain migration to the Gulf Coast area, due to its amenable climate and availability of fishing and shrimping opportunities.  As a result, Vietnamese is one of the predominant cuisines found all over the city.  Making it even more interesting, Vietnamese culture had already intermingled with French culture.  Witness, for example, the banh mi sandwich.  Perhaps that's part of why it has been embraces so wholeheartedly in Nola.

The history behind Nola's much-loved Pho Tau Bay restaurant is particularly illustrative on Vietnamese settlements in Louisiana:
The history of their successful restaurants began in the 1960s, when their grandfather opened 13 restaurants in Vietnam under the name of Pho Tau Bay. Due to the fall of Saigon in 1975, the family was forced to flee to the United States for a better life and a new beginning.

In 1982, Vy and Alys’ parents, Chau and Anh Thu Cao, along with a brother-in-law, opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans, LA. They chose the same name that Anh Thu’s father used in Vietnam, Pho Tau Bay, simply meaning “Flying Soup Boat.”  It was an immediate success due to the thriving Vietnamese population in New Orleans.

By 2001, Ninh, Vy, and her mother opened the second Pho Tau Bay Restaurant in Metairie, LA.  In 2004, with their marketing and business degrees, Bernard and Alys decided to join the family business in order to build a bigger and better empire.  By 2005, the family ran 3 of the 4 most successful Vietnamese restaurants in the Greater New Orleans area.
Tofu and Avocado spring rolls
at Jazmine
Luckily we still have one PTB here in Nola (the others were closed after Katrina), as well as a huge number of other Vietnamese restaurants that have opened in the past decade.  In fact, the city has seen ten or more new Viet restaurants open their doors in the past two years.  This growth has been a boon (bun?) to Nola's vegans, as many of the newer restaurants offer vegan pho, tofu dishes, and to-die-for fresh spring rolls that are vegan by default.  Magasin on Magazine Street even offers vegan nuac mam, a common dipping sauce that is traditionally made with fish sauce.  Jazmine in the Riverbend will automatically bring you peanut sauce instead of nuac mam when you order veggie bun.

With this unbridled explosion of local Vietnamese cuisine, it's not too surprising that some older-school local boys wanted to get in on the action. Mid-City natives Michael and Jeff Gulotta saw an opportunity to fuse Nola cooking styles with Vietnamese standards.  Their Mid-City restaurant, MoPho, is not in fact your "typical" Vietnamese joint.  You'll see some familiar dishes on the menu such as pho and bun, they're a bit different than what you're used to.  They have bubble tea, and they'll even booze it up for you.

As has happened so many times before, another culture's foods are folded into the tapestry that is New Orleans cuisine, giving us an even greater depth and breadth of delicious foods.

Mix-n-match vegan pho at MoPho


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