New Orleans is unquestionably one of the best food cities in America. Being the home of the po’boy, muffuletta sandwich, and having beignet shops all over town would be enough to put it on any foodie’s map. However, you also have a variety of restaurants serving everything from creole and Cajun classics, southern comfort food, fresh seafood and locally caught oysters, to modern American classics.
One thing that surprised me was the number of highly regarded Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans. I don’t mean the recent appearance of a pho restaurant in every neighborhood, either. These NO locations have been serving food for decades and have reputations to go with them.
The most famous is Dong Phuong Bakery, which was named a James Beard America’s Classic in 2018. Still serving food from the same brick building they’ve always occupied, they also bake the banh mi and po’boy rolls for many shops around town. It’s also one of the most popular places to get your king cake for Mardi Gras, requiring placing an order from weeks to months in advance.
Seeing all of these restaurants made me wonder,”Why New Orleans?” What about the city caused it to have a large Vietnamese population? The answer I found is fascinating.
In the mid-1970s, there was a large influx of Vietnamese immigrants to the US. While many of them settled along the west coast, smaller pockets ended up in other cities, including about 2,000 settling in New Orleans.
It was there they found a place that reminded them of home. Having a similar climate to southern Vietnam, they could grow and cook with the same ingredients they already knew. Being along the gulf coast meant that they could find work as fishermen, shrimpers and crabbers, skills they already had. Finally, New Orleans has a strong French influence, just like Vietnam. Ever notice that there’s not much difference between a banh mi roll and a French baguette?
The older Vietnamese restaurants cook from recipes created by that first generation of immigrants. However, there’s also a new generation who are taking the classic dishes and melding them with the other cuisines found in New Orleans. You can now find Asian tacos and a Cuban banh mi along with filet mignon pho.
In addition, you’ll find Vietnamese ingredients and dishes showing up on the menus of other restaurants. Why wouldn’t you? If you’re a chef and grew up eating rice noodles as much as beignets, of course, you’re going to cook with them.
While the original immigrants looked to form their own community on the outskirts of town, they’re now a part of New Orleans. The city has incorporated so many cultures over the years but manages to let each one retain their own spirit. Next time you’re in town, besides a po’boy and beignet, add a stop for some Vietnamese food.
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