Before moving to New Orleans, I considered the half-mile radius surrounding all shopping malls an extension of the plastic binging that transpires inside -- a corporate vacuum of jalapeno poppers, deep-dish pizzas and fat-free dressings. But mealtimes in the blocks neighboring Metairie's Lakeside Mall also involve homemade pastas, herbaceous saag paneer and Dover sole de-boned tableside. The air on North Arnoult Road in particular is thick with garlicky charbroiled oysters, grilled steaks and simmering red sauce. Since April, there's also been a breeze of fresh spearmint and lemon grass creeping from the East Bank's first Pho Tau Bay restaurant.
At its Gretna location, where regulars drop in before shopping at the Kim Phat market next door, your typical mall crowd is the minority. The Metairie clientele, however, confirms that there's no stereotype for the American willing to delve into Vietnamese cuisine. You might overhear highly coiffed women ordering extra "knock ma'am sauce" for egg rolls rich with pork and crab forcemeat (nuoc mam, fish sauce, is as integral to Vietnamese cuisine as salt is to Creole cooking). Buff men straight from GNC order lunch lineups of multiple Vietnamese po-boys and caffeine-free Diet Cokes. Vietnamese-American schoolgirls sporting Pokemon backpacks share mounds of luscious goi ga (shredded cabbage, carrot, onion, spearmint, chicken and vinegary ginger, all soaking in nuoc mam).
Even in its most authentic forms -- with the oddly gelatinous textures, the bursts of spice and the sauce of fermented anchovy -- the Vietnamese food at this new suburban hotspot is proving itself to the masses. Called "po-boys" in local Vietnamese restaurants, banh mi actually are traditional sandwiches served on small, crusty baguettes slathered with housemade mayonnaise and often garnished with cucumber fillets, pickled carrot and hot green chiles. The banh mi ga, recommended by a novice server with good taste, also packed bits of soy-darkened, jerky-like chicken in its skin that easily could have passed for a manlier meat.
Translucent rice paper stretches around popular spring roll fillings like rice noodles, bean sprouts and purple-leafed mint with the bite of cinnamon Dentyne. There's tofu for vegetarians; if animal flesh isn't an offense, choose cold shrimp and pork instead. Both need daubing into hoisin-spiked peanut sauce ladled warm from crock pots in one corner of the clean, seafoam-green space. Best of all, play with super-thin slices of raw beef and onion, accompanied by dampened rice paper, baskets of herbs, salty pineapple sauce and a fondue pot of boiling vinegar water. One dunk and the beef turns a tart medium-rare. When your table unexpectedly fills with appetizers, entrees and drinks delivered in one swift motion, rolling your own cigar-tight spring roll instead becomes a lesson in the broken taco. Just eat.
And move quickly into garnishing deep bowls of soup with basil and mint, to springy noodle dishes and to easygoing rice platters. In my favorite soup, wontons fat with ground pork and shrimp sunk into celery-scented chicken stock; add tender squid, crab stick, fish cake and shrimp for just $1.25. A worthy vegetarian soup was cilantro-bright and deepened with sesame oil. Sheets of crisp cabbage, scallions, fried tofu and gummy tapioca noodles crowded the bowl. Once, I caught a friend squirting hoisin and red chile sauces into "hot and spicy" meat soup (which was neither when I tried it) like he was dressing a hotdog. New to me, this accepted technique gives hope to skeptics who find brothy Vietnamese soups too blah.
I can't think of a lovelier summertime dinner than Pho Tau Bay's room-temperature vermicelli salad bowl with chopped egg rolls and lemon grass beef. Six of us cooed over the slippery noodles, perfumed meat and hearty rolls tossed with spearmint, cucumber, lettuce, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, crispy fried onions and copious nuoc mam.
An initiate to Vietnamese cuisine ditched her chopsticks to wrap lettuce and herbs around clumps of steamed rice noodles, crushed peanuts, scallions and yummy "char-grilled sliced pork" that tasted like the progeny of kielbasa bred with bacon. Another first-timer marveled at shrimp fried rice studded with five spice-seasoned pork; half a game hen with crispy, maple-sweet skin and mustard-curry dipping sauce also made the rounds with applause.
For me, the perfect Vietnamese meal begins with salt preserved lime and club soda; it ends with mung bean paste, sweet red beans and jellied cubes stirred into sugary coconut milk over ice. Vy Banh cares well for such beverage and dessert needs at this new Pho Tau Bay, while her husband, Ninh, conducts business in the kitchen. Other drinks include iced jasmine tea refreshed with lime juice and homemade soy milk as white and clean as a line-dried pillowcase. A marvelous pudding made with rice, corn and coconut milk tasted like the outcome of a Pilgrim's trip to the Asian market.
Before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Pho Tau Bay was a restaurant franchise in Vietnam started by Vy's grandfather. Their intentions were less grandiose when her parents and uncle resumed the legacy in Gretna two decades ago. Now that they've begun to feed another Bank, the masses might not let them settle with just this one offspring.