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Banh Mi Blitz
Trio of New Restaurants Add Vietnamese Po-Boys to Magazine Street Sandwich Selections
Vietnamese food has arrived on Magazine Street, as it's now home to three spots serving Southeast Louisiana's most prevalent Southeast Asian food. To introduce us to these new spots, Brad Rhines samples the Banh Mi at each location, and talks to the chefs about their creations.
Not so long ago, it was a familiar refrain: If you want good Vietnamese food in New Orleans, you gotta go to the West Bank or New Orleans East. Now, with a spate of Uptown openings in the past year, the city’s pho-natics are claiming their own neighborhood joints. On Magazine Street alone, three new Vietnamese restaurants sprouted up, all locally owned and all rooted in traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The menus include the staples that diners have come to expect: spring rolls, pho, bun, and banh mi, also known in these parts as “Vietnamese po-boys.”
In New Orleans, folks are fierce about their po-boys, and debates rage on about the best sandwich or the best shop. While roast beef and gravy on a Leidenheimer’s loaf sounds simple enough, the results can be profoundly different, especially to a detail-oriented enthusiast. As the banh mi gains popularity among the city’s sandwich obsessed, similar debates will inevitably surface in the coming months, since each spot puts their on twist on Vietnam’s signature sub. But first, one must do the yeoman's work of surveying the field.
NoDef recently hit Magazine Street to check out Lilly’s Café, Pho Noi Viet, and Magasin, sampling sandwiches and talking to the owners about what makes a good banh mi. While each spot offers several variations, we stuck to the grilled pork banh mi for reasons of consistent comparisons and, admittedly, a preference for pig.
At Lilly’s Café (1813 Magazine Street), owner Trinh “Lilly” Vuong told NoDef, “how you put it together is very important,” as we watched her assemble a sandwich. It starts with the roll, in this case a pistolette from Hi-Do Bakery on the West Bank. The roll has a delicate, crispy crust that gives way to an airy crumb that holds up to the fillings without overpowering the sandwich. The roll gets a slather of butter, a generous portion of pork, and is topped with julienned vegetables and a spring of cilantro. In addition to pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers and jalapenos are thinly sliced, melding cool and spicy elements together in a crunchy sort of slaw.
According to Vuong, “the marinated meat is the most important part.” Lilly’s uses chunks of pork shoulder marinated in soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, and pepper, and the peppery pork really wakes up the sandwich.
Just a few blocks away at Pho Noi Viet (2005 Magazine Street), owners Vinh and Kim Vu also use rolls from Hi Do. Ms. Vu told NoDef that she pops the already baked rolls into the oven a second time to crisp them up even more before making a banh mi. The rolls are then sliced down the middle from the top, rather than the side, which makes a sturdy vessel for the sandwich’s filling and, according to Vu, a more attractive banh mi. With fat chunks of cucumber, wide strips of jalapeno, a generous helping of cilantro, and a spicy kick to the pickled carrot and daikon, the banh mi at Pho Noi Viet seems more run-through-the-garden than at other places. The delicately seasoned pork is one of several elements in this well-balanced sandwich rather than the highlight.
While we were there for the pork, Vu is especially proud of her meatball banh mi, which she says takes a special touch. “If it’s not done right, it’s not good,” she said. “Mine’s good.”
Of the new Vietnamese spots on Magazine Street, Magasin (4201 Magazine Street) might be the most high-profile, partly because it was the first to open, and partly because of its location, a block of Magazine near Napoleon Avenue that has become a veritable restaurant row. This short block between General Pershing and Milan streets hosts six restaurants, soon to be seven when the new Dominique’s on Magazine opens later this year.
Rather than the standard pistolette, Magasin serves up sandwiches on baguettes from the near-by bakery La Boulangerie. Most of the time, at least. Since the bakery closes during the month of August, Magasin is currently sourcing their bread from Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans East, using a roll that’s shaped roughly like a baguette, but textured more like the traditional pistolette. The grilled pork at Magasin is sliced thin, which gives it a crispy char. The ever-present cilantro, jalapeno, and pickled carrot and daikon is joined by a single long plank of cucumber, which adds a refreshing crunch to the sandwich.
All of the po-boys offer discriminating diners a chance to pick their own favorite and defend it vigorously, just as Parkway and Domilise’s both have their loyal supporters. The important thing is that Uptowners finally have a chance to brawl over banh mi. With market costs for seafood increasing and po-boys priced in the double-digits, the banh mi is still a deal at about 5 bucks, which would surely make the Martin brothers proud.
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