We were on a po boy run with our sights vectored in on the Tet Festival
Cries of Chúc mung nam moi (Happy New Year) greeted the arriving throngs as thousands of people crowded onto the grounds of Mary Queen of Vietnam church.
An ACDC tribute band provided the soundtrack from a giant stage with a speaker system that would do Hawkwind proud.When the Vietnam war ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, waves of Vietnamese pilgrims set sail for the United States with thousands settling the exotic land of southeast Louisiana. We’re all better off with this diaspora of lovely people living in our community.
And man can they cook. New Orleans restaurant scene is chockablock with Vietnamese cafes, diners, restaurants and bakeries. We often go weeks on end only eating Vietnamese food when we dine out.
Our introduction to the banh mi (Vietnamese po boy) came back in the 80s at a long-shuttered restaurant in Austin, Texas called Ba Le. If memory serves it ran about $2. We were instantly hooked.At New Orleans Tet Festival there are dozens of food vendors scattered about the grounds of the church, and after years of attendance we certainly have our favorites. We’ve also learned that you can ask for ‘off the menu’ food and the nice ladies manning the kiosks will happily oblige.
Which is how we came to land a pluperfect Vietnamese meatball banh mi.
At our favorite booth we noticed a crockpot filled with a brilliant red soupy broth that portended unimaginable deliciousness. A brief exchange with the cook led her to plunge a ladle deep into the cooker revealing dozens of perfectly formed meatballs.And yes, she’d be happy to build an ad hoc meatball po boy.
Accoutrements were standard: cucumber, daikon, jalapeno, shredded carrots, cilantro, and creamy mayonnaise. If the garnish were run of the mill, the protein was anything but: ground pork, seemingly bound with nothing more than love, and seasoned vigorously with anise, powered this sandwich-one of the finest in the entire series. .Vietnamese take their bread as seriously, if not more so, than native New Orleanians. This po boy’s bun has been wrenched from the ovens of Duong Phong, a legendary bakery that sits roughly a mile down the road from the party.
The crust is shattering-fresh, quickly giving way to the thick stack of carefully-assembled fillings. On a lesser roll this sandwich would still be good, on the Phong bun it is magnificent.