They come to party.
How many neighborhood churches in New Orleans are vending $5 po boys, chargrilled oysters, and quarts of goat meat stew alongside raucous gambling booths?The crowd is chain-smoking, guzzling Bud Light, and dancing to a revue of Vietnamese pop musicians.
Children wielding plastic submachine guns are wildly chasing one another with nary a cop in sight. Nobody’s drawing down on them or otherwise tripping out. Kids being kids.
Fireworks are exploding all over the place while Vietnamese grannies calmly turn out big bowls of spicy beef noodle soup and fried egg rolls.A small team of dedicated banh mi experts is quickly assembling stacks of the classic Viet po boys of liver cheese and meatballs with all the regular accoutrement.
Anytime I see sandbagging like this going down at a food festival I’m wary but these gals know what they’re doing and I’ve been eating from their booth for nearly a decade.
Most of the deep-budget banh mis around New Orleans are certainly cheap with plenty hovering around the $3 mark but just like the old mountain sage Nellie Sullivan used to say, “you get what you pay for.”This Tet Fest banh mi is pricey at $5 but is a far more substantial sandwich than is typical of the form. Despite Dong Phuong Bakeshop’s questionable labor practices they do turn out a respectable loaf of bread. They’re less than five minutes from the church so their presence in the site’s kitchens is understood.
Liver cheese is an old school New Orleans lunch meat that every corner store in the city carries. A liver cheese, fried potato and gravy po boy could be considered canonical but that’s not what we’ve gathered to discuss. This here is a banh mi or as the signs helpfully trumpet for the outsiders: “Vietnamese po boys”
Garnish includes daikon, cucumber, jalapeno and carrot which is all fine but the tipping point of this sandwich is provided by the handmade, pork Viet meatballs with that classic sweet umami glaze. Normally sweet and savory blended together is nigh onto nauseating but these cooks know how to dance on that sword with aplomb.New Orleans has had a big Vietnamese population since the 70s when thousands of émigrés fled southeastern Asia for a better life in the US. We’re better for it.
If you’d like to further explore the Village de’Lest neighborhood (there are dozens of tiny eat-shops there) please watch the Marcus Samuelsson episode of ‘No Passport Required.’
Most of the traveling chef TV shows are unbearable but Samuelsson conducts himself with a likeable mien.
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