Walk into Lost Love Lounge any given night and you'll find people draining beers, shooting pool and slurping big, steaming bowls of pho, the ambrosial Vietnamese beef soup. It's part of the uncommon yet surprisingly apt late-night eating options at this Faubourg Marigny bar, which leases its connected restaurant space to the amusingly named Pho King (2529 Dauphine St., 944-2009).
Since taking over the kitchen from a similar but short-lived operation this summer, Pho King proprietor Ariana Ybarra and cook Kim Vu have been proving just how well the characteristically fresh, light flavors of Vietnamese cooking can play the role of pub grub. From 6 p.m. until at least midnight, servers from Pho King shuttle bowls of cool rice noodle salads (called bun) and crusty banh mi packed with grilled pork or chicken to patrons in the dining room or perched at the bar. As the night progresses and hair metal cranks from the jukebox, orders of tofu spring rolls, grilled shrimp with jasmine rice and tempura-fried bananas keep rolling from the kitchen.
A Marigny barroom is new territory for Vietnamese cooking. Not long ago, finding this type of food meant visiting restaurants clustered near the Vietnamese enclaves in eatern New Orleans or Gretna. Those are still the best destinations to experience local Vietnamese cooking in full bloom. But as the familiarity and popularity of this cuisine has grown, the opportunities for a taste of the casual standards — like spring rolls, banh mi, bun and pho — are proliferating around New Orleans neighborhoods and working their way closer to the mainstream.
In addition to places openly devoted to Vietnamese cooking, more Vietnamese-run restaurants now split their menus between familiar Chinese fare and their own cuisine. August Moon (3635 Prytania St., 899-5129; www.moonnola.com) and Doson Noodle House (135 N. Carrollton Ave., 309-7283) follow this model, and Moon Wok (800 Dauphine St., 523-6950) has recently adopted the format as well.
Corner stores and delis run by Vietnamese families have added take-out pho, bun and banh mi to their routine offerings of gumbo and plate lunches, though these new choices aren't always obvious. Pass the ranks of beer coolers and aisles of junk food at Eat-Well Food Store (2700 Canal St., 821-7730) and you'll find a sandwich counter serving first-rate banh mi bulging with Vietnamese cold cuts and pickled vegetables. Singleton's Mini Mart (7446 Garfield St., 866-4741) in the Black Pearl neighborhood always has spring rolls wrapped and ready to go by the cash register, and bun and pho are served on Saturdays. Hand-written posters give instructions for how to properly garnish the soup and tout its powers as a hangover cure. Across town, Bywater Market (4400 St. Claude Ave., 948-8998) has the feel of a high security convenience store, but just ask and the women working behind the protective plastic barrier will ladle out pho by the quart from beside the steam table of turkey necks and red beans.
Marigny Pho, the original kitchen tenant at Lost Love Lounge, is slated to reopen at a new address. After a brief stint serving his Vietnamese menu at the Cake Cafe & Bakery, Marigny Pho proprietor Chris Reel plans to reopen inside Marie's Bar (2483 Burgundy St., 267-5869; www.marignypho.com), an unreconstructed dive just around the corner from Pho King. As Vietnamese cooking becomes more accessible in the city, it seems we're even getting competing options in the same neighborhood.