On a chilly Friday night in late February in the New Orleans East neighborhood, thousands of Vietnamese-Americans and a mix of other residents turned out for the Tet Festival, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year Festival, held annually at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church.
The huge Feb. 19 event, just 13 miles from the city’s central business district, was filled with karaoke and other Vietnamese music and tons of silly string. Without a doubt, this was the year’s biggest gathering of the vibrant Vietnamese-American community that has been a part of New Orleans’ fabric since the mid-1970s. And food, of course, was at the center of the night’s celebration.
Festival vendors sold dishes such as pho, spring rolls and fried plantains as well as specialties such as congealed duck’s blood and fertilized duck eggs. The pho was perfectly flavored, vermicelli noodles were fresh, and the spring rolls were stuffed with fresh Gulf shrimp accompanied by an amazing spicy peanut sauce.
The festival showcased the tight-knit community’s focus on familiar, traditional foods. These Vietnamese dishes and the common culture that brought them to New Orleans have influenced the Crescent City’s cuisine and restaurants for decades. Attended by people from across New Orleans, the Tet Festival reminded the city of the important inspiration that Vietnamese cuisine and culture have had on its distinctive culinary landscape.
Vietnamese Influence on New Orleans cuisine
To explore this influence, go no further than Dong Phuong Restaurant and Bakery, deep in the neighborhood and made famous by a cover story in New Orleans’ alternative newspaper, Gambit Weekly, during last year’s Po-Bboy Preservation Festival.
The bakery part of the operation is wildly successful and has expanded to become a distributor of its delectable French bread to some of the city’s finest restaurants. It features traditional Vietnamese delicacies such as steamed pork buns and pate chaud as well as French and American baked goods, including cinnamon rolls, cookies and birthday cakes.
But the bahn mi is what has made Dong Phuong famous. It is the Vietnamese version of the po’boy, topped with celery, carrots and other vegetables (very uncharacteristic of the traditional kind) and filled with Asian-seasoned pork and often coated with pate.
New Orleans is taken by this addition to its esteemed repertoire of po’boys, and highbrow restaurants like Chef Donald Link’s Cochon and Chef Nathanial Zimet’s Boucherie are among those buying its French bread in bulk. The popular Magazine Street coffee shop, Rue de la Course, is also selling Dong Phuong’s cinnamon rolls and baked goods. Kevin Tran, son of restaurant owners Khuong Tran and Tuyet Pham (Khuong’s sister Huong Tran owns the bakery), boasted about the bakery’s recent attention for something distinctly New Orleans: the king cake.
“Our king cake got really popular this year,” Tran said. “Some of our customers even said it was on par or better than Randazzo’s [a New Orleans bakery known to have one of the best king cakes around]. I was pleasantly surprised!”
The increased media coverage surrounding the restaurant has led to a more varied customer base, and the owners are happy with the growing number of people interested in introducing their palate to Vietnamese food while visiting New Orleans East.
“We get much of our clientele on the weekdays from NASA and Lockheed Martin, who have offices around here,” Tuyet Pham said. These customers come so often that she knows their orders by heart. “But on the weekends, it is almost all Vietnamese families. It is special for them to go out on Sundays and have a meal together as a family.”
The Tran family has owned and operated the restaurant portion of Dong Phuong since 1982, when Lieng Tran, the family’s matriarch, bought the business with a loan from a family friend. Her son, who worked at the restaurant since he was a boy, now owns it with his wife. In keeping the tradition, their sons Alex and Kevin work there on the weekends as well.
The family is proud of the restaurant’s more traditional cuisine, including dishes that families don’t have the time or resources to cook because they take hours to make or include special ingredients. Kevin said pho was their best-selling dish, followed by spring rolls, stir fry noodles and the Vietnamese crepe – a crispier version of the classic French pancake filled with shrimp, pork, vegetables and herbs and dipped in fish sauce.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” Pham asked. “It’s different!”
A closer look at the Vietnamese community
The Tran family shares a similar story to much of the Vietnamese community here, immigrating to New Orleans in the mid-1970s and staying in the same neighborhood ever since.
The Vietnamese-American community of New Orleans is about 15,000 strong. They live quietly in the more rural part of Orleans Parish called New Orleans East. About 90 percent of the residents in the Versailles neighborhood — named for the Versailles Arms apartments that were inhabited by the first Vietnamese immigrants to arrive in New Orleans — are Vietnamese. A majority of them come from the same two or three towns in Vietnam, according to Lauren Butz of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation.
“A lot of the folks are from Northern Vietnam and moved south in 1954 but stayed together,” said Butz, who is working to create the Viet Village Urban Farm next door to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in the heart of the community. “In 1975 they came to the U.S. and moved to New Orleans after the archdiocese and Catholic Charities sponsored them. New Orleans also offers a climate similar to Vietnam, which allowed many of the people to continue their occupations of fishing and gardening.”
The community has lived here ever since, and they were the first to return after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. Since then, they have become more vocal about the rebuilding of their neighborhood, and at the top of their list for a sustainable community is a community garden.
Food as a uniting force
At 6 a.m. every Saturday morning, vendors set up shop in the parking lot of a shoddily restored strip mall in New Orleans East for the weekly, informal Vietnamese farmer’s market. Compared to the city’s other markets, it is small with only about 10 vendors.
Marcus Dedeaux of Long Beach, Miss., has been coming to the market for about five years because he likes that most vendors grow everything they sell in their back yard. It’s this traditionalism attracts more than 100 customers each week.
Minh Nguyen, founder of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, said the food is a reminder for the younger generations of where they come from and is something tangible to share with the rest of New Orleans. He mentioned that famous Chef John Besh eats at the Vietnamese eatery Ba Mien in the Versailles neighborhood every week.
“Food plays a big role, it is part of a culture that we hope we won’t lose,” he said. “You see all the businesses around the community, we use the vegetables and the farming techniques that they had in Vietnam. The culture aspect is definitely there.”
“They are really rooted in the land,” Butz said. “Right after the storm, there were 199 FEMA trailers directly across the street from the church. I’ve seen a picture of an elderly lady who planted a garden right outside of her trailer. She had vegetables growing where a car would be parked.”
The Viet Village Urban Farm is an outgrowth of the community’s passion for gardening. Set to break ground in spring 2011, the project has been in the works for almost three years and seeks to provide a communal space for gardening, raising livestock and selling the fruits of their labor. The space will be filled with traditional Vietnamese produce, including bamboo, lemongrass, oriental kale, ginger, taro root and jute.
“We hope this garden will provide green jobs and show the community that they can be self employed by growing their own food,” Butz said. “We want to expand the economic opportunities for folks who focus on gardening.”
Catherine Lyons is a writer living in New Orleans.
Photo, from top: A Vietnamese crepe, crispier than the French version, stuffed with pork, shrimp, vegetables and herbs, then dipped in fish sauce. A worker loads fresh pork into the bahn mi station at Dong Phuong’s. Credits: Catherine Lyons