If eaters want to patronize restaurants endorsed by fine dining chefs, they can consult apps such as Where Chefs Eat, Chefs Feed or Find. Eat. Drink. (In Charleston, the apps point to the scallop po’ boy at 167 Raw; muffaletta at The Royal American and octopus salad at Bacco, among other dishes.)
Still, whether it’s wise to seek restaurant advice from chefs is debatable. Chefs spend more nights working than dining, and when they do visit a restaurant, they’re likely to be singled out for special treatment. As The Washington Post’s Tim Carman wrote in a story exploring the validity of chef-supplied restaurant recommendations, “Chefs don’t have time, or much motivation, to comb their cities for the best food.”
That makes sense. But in cities where it’s a point of chef pride to draw influences from immigrant cooking, I tend to trust chefs’ suggestions for taquerias, pho shops and other restaurants that keep hours compatible with crazy kitchen schedules. At those restaurants, chef celebrity and industry friendships don’t matter as much as secret spice blends and hand-pulled noodles.
So when New Orleans’ Alon Shaya -- the reigning James Beard Foundation Best Chef South and mastermind behind Shaya, an extraordinary exposition of modern Israeli cuisine – earlier this month offered to share his local Vietnamese eating itinerary with me, I instantly reached for my pen.
A bit of quick background for eaters who still associate New Orleans with gumbo and crawfish etouffee: Those Creole standards haven’t gone away. But the city is also home to one of the nation’s most vibrant Vietnamese eating scenes, thanks to the enormous numbers of Vietnamese who settled in south Louisiana after the Fall of Saigon. They may have been drawn by the familiar climate, Catholic churches or the shrimping industry, which they came to dominate through a willingness to go out further and stay out longer.
Immigrants from Vietnam clustered in eastern New Orleans and the West Bank, creating a ready clientele for fellow countrymen with cooking skills. Initially, according to Times-Picayune critic Brett Anderson, the newly-arrived restaurateurs stuck to Chinese food, considered more likely to appeal to American-born eaters. But in the 1980s and 1990s, many of them shifted their menus toward bun and banh mis. (Now, Anderson reports, their children are developing more ambitious restaurants, serving craft cocktails and wasabi cream.)
Shaya outlined five classic Vietnamese choices: Three on the West Bank and two in eastern New Orleans, each helpfully annotated with can’t-miss dishes. I started my tour with Tan Dinh on the West Bank, which my phone told me was just over an hour away by foot. And the walking directions included perhaps my favorite phrase in travel: “This route includes a ferry.”
I’ve probably visited New Orleans about 15 times, so I’m far from an expert on the city. Yet I feel like I should have known about the ferry that crosses the Mississippi River, especially since it docks just behind the aquarium on the fringe of the French Quarter. A friend in New York knew about it: When I texted him to say I was afloat, he directed me to The Crown & Anchor Pub on the other side. (I know: This has nothing to do with noodles. The moral of the story is that enrolling yourself in a culinary scavenger hunt can lead to boats and beer and all kinds of unanticipated fun.)
The Crown & Anchor had the dusky lighting and dark wood fixtures that usually portend a well-pulled pint. It seemed like a nice place to read. One of the bartenders, perhaps alarmed that the book I’d brought was Sarah Hepola’s new memoir about alcoholism, offered me an adventure title that he’d spent the better part of his shift devouring. But I was on my way to Tan Dihn.
Tan Dinh has a massive menu. I’d resolved to follow Shaya’s list precisely, though, so I ordered the spicy tofu; quail with black pepper; lemongrass chicken wings and grilled pork spring rolls. As I recall, it was about this time that I regretted not cajoling someone else into making the trip with me.
The French influences on Vietnamese cooking were apparent from the delicate quail, served whole. The crisp skin popped with pepper; the meat within was dark and tender. The spring rolls – swollen bundles of cold noodles, lettuce and smoky splinters of pork, straining against translucent rice paper – chili-sheathed wings and fried blocks of custardy tofu, spilling turmeric-tinted oil, were less rigidly Colonial and equally wonderful.
Next on the list was Pho Bang, which Shaya credits with producing the city’s best Vietnamese beef stock. But another New Orleanian was less enthused about the local chain, so I skipped it in favor of Pho Ga, which I’d been calling since Shaya told me I’d have to order the lobster with tamarind and lemongrass in advance. Nobody answered. I took it as a sign of heavy customer traffic. Another explanation, which I suppose I should have contemplated before shelling out 50 bucks for an Uber ride, was an extended vacation: The restaurant was closed when we arrived.
I picked up the Eastern New Orleans portion of the program the next day, with the help of my friend Pableaux Johnson, who offered to drive. We started at Ba Mien, where the clear winner was banh cuon, or steamed rice rolls, slippery tubular crepes that limply embraced greens and grilled pork.
Dong Phuong is also a restaurant, but it’s the bakery counter in the front half of the building that rivets Vietnamese food devotees. (Because Dong Phuong is just a few minutes down the road from Ba Mien, eaters from other parts of the city often hit both stops on the same trip. It isn’t immediately apparent what else there is for visitors to do in Eastern New Orleans, a wide-angle moonscape planted with street signs in Vietnamese. Along Chef Menteur Highway, we passed a Winn-Dixie; an auto parts shop and We Never Close Po-Boys, which was permanently closed.)
If you’re looking for a cake sculpted and frosted to look like a unicorn, Dong Phuong’s display case will beckon. But most casual customers come for the outstanding banh mi, barbecue pork buns and meat pies, which may have been the very best thing I ate over four days in New Orleans.
There are two basic styles of meat pies at Dong Phuong: The first, which I didn’t sample, is close kin to the spicy ground pork pies associated with Natchitoches. The second is a more complicated pate chaud, or banh pate so, sporting flaky puff pastry. The filling, scented with black pepper and shallots, is a mix of pork, mushrooms and onions that’s somehow both elegant and viscerally satisfying.
I learned about the kind of pie I didn’t try from Hung, who was working the bar at Brennan’s when I brunched there the next morning. Hung’s mother is a baker; for a brief time, the family lived above Dong Phuong, which is a pretty fantastic example of one special element of the New Orleans’ dining scene.
Not only do the city’s fancy restaurant chefs flock to immigrant owned-restaurants: Those places function as a starting point for the workers who staff the most upscale restaurants. I felt like I’d completed a circle in the Crescent City.