Few things get us as excited as the prospect of eating at the table of a Vietnamese granny woman. So when our food grapevine came alive with the tale of a party at Mary Queen Of Vietnam church in New Orleans East we decided to go all in and make the trek from Bywater to the Little Vietnam section of New Orleans.”
New Orleans East is one of our favorite parts of the Crescent City. As Gentilly melts away, the high rent district dissolves into a long line of fading businesses drawn out of the city core by promises of cheap tenancy and neighborhoods packed with blue collar workers.
Old dive bars, soul food diners, fried fish parlors, head shops, and the occasional mosque dot the landscape, parts of which look as though Katrina hit last week. If you were so inclined you could be in Mississippi in less than a half hour.
Perhaps another day.
Stepping onto the grounds of Mary Queen Of Vietnam, the air is alive with the smell of food: Catfish is frying, goat is boiling, pork is barbecuing and multiple food stations are being tended to by dozens of Vietnamese folks smiling their way through the tasks at hand.
We casually stroll through the vast assortment of booths and kiosks to get the lay of the land before we begin plundering the chow laid out on tables and arrayed across big charcoal grills.
Once we take measure of the offerings, we start the bacchanal with what we reckon is Vietnam’s version of a beignet: a parcel of fried dough, lightly sweetened and served sans powdered sugar. It’s hot from the fryer, costs a buck, and provides a good base to line our stomachs with before we begin our assault in earnest.
Rotating over to an adjoining booth we wrestle a pair of eggrolls from a hotel pan, pay another dollar and head for the condiment station. This is where we encounter the funkiest, wildest tasting fish sauce known to man. Over the past few years we’ve experimented with plenty fish sauces. Yes, Redboat is the Cadillac but sometimes you have to branch out so we’re always ready to vector in on a new style or brand.
This one comes in a plain, plastic squeeze bottle and it narrowly skates the margin between delicious and ruined.
From the same vendor we source a brace of fine beef kebabs, $3 apiece and roughly a foot long. This is classic street food: grilled meat on a stick with zero accoutrement.
The party starts to pick up as Jesus And Mary Chain comes blasting across the public address system, perhaps word has filtered in on the gulf breeze that the old Scottish pysche band are back on the road in the UK playing Cardiff and where have you.
Can a gig in Chalmette or Gentilly be far behind.
We’re always in the market for a new regional riff on barbecue so when we see a sign extolling “Manchu BBQ” we hasten ourselves over to a phalanx of elderly Vietnamese men who are hoisting hotel pans filled with meat onto a steam line. Manchu BBQ turns out to be little more than grilled pork skewers laced with green onions. They are delicious and may even be an accurate portrayal of the smoked meats of Manchuria.
But the real reason we came to Mary Queen Of Vietnam Church is to feast on goat. Goat being one of the most delicious creatures we’ve ever experienced in our former lives in Texas. At $18 a bowl this is one dear dish but how many chances do you get to eat Goat Hot Pot, cooked by elderly Vietnamese folks?
The bowl holds roughly a quart of soup with a few stray pieces of exceedingly fatty and bony goat meat. Goats by nature are lean creatures so we suspect these beasts had been carefully hand-raised prior to being led to slaughter.
Carrots are the lone vegetable and the broth is a testament to the staying power of grease-if your cook doesn’t have the time or inclination to defat the broth every so often.
The overriding flavor is turmeric.
Admittedly our bar for goat is high after yearly visits to the Brady International Goat Cook-Off in McCulloch County, Texas, where some 200 competitors smoke, grill and barbecue goats in a massive competition that some 15,000 people attend. Our goat acumen was deemed of a quality that we were ushered into the judging chambers several years ago setting off a near decade long run on the committee who selects the winners.
Leaving the Mary Queen Of Vietnam food party we’re near tearful. Good food does that to a body. After 40 plus years in Village de L’Est the local Vietnamese residents have a hammerlock on how to properly throw a bacchanal.
As we pull out of the parking lot a group of Vietnamese senior citizens excitedly wave goodby, fighting off an urge to burn rubber to let them know we’re cool, we calmly drive off toward our home of the Upper 9th Ward.