At Nine Roses Restaurant on the West Bank, the encyclopedia-like menu accounts for its nearly 20-year success as much as the eatery's solid Chinese and Vietnamese fare. At its smaller offshoot in the French Quarter, owner Anna Nguyen has dropped the Chinese items, instead showcasing a diminutive menu of approachable Vietnamese standbys.
Until now, finding casual Vietnamese food in the French Quarter wasn't an easy task. For lunchtime workers at the nearby Supreme Court building, visitors tired of tourist traps and residents eager for a quick meal, the opening of Nine Roses Cafe is good news.
The concept isn't unprecedented and follows on the heels of other West Bank Vietnamese institutions such as Tan Dinh and Pho Tau Bay opening or in the process of opening restaurants on the East Bank.
Nine Roses is tucked in a tiny storefront on Conti Street and has no more than 15 tables, which seems to encourage quick turnover. Pale green walls and a chalkboard listing daily specials add to the laid-back vibe.
It serves Vietnamese standbys that dot many local Southeast Asian menus — steamed buns, vermicelli bowls and pho — and rotating monthly specials that offer a glimpse of the depth of the cuisine.
Chao tom — shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane stalks — was marinated in scallion oil and charred on the grill. The shrimp carried the sweetness of the sugarcane but wasn't cloying, and deep grill marks imbued smoky flavor. Lettuce and herbs — cilantro, basil and mint — serve as vessels to scoop up the shrimp before treating the impromptu hand roll to a dip in peanut sauce that delivers a fiery kick of chili pepper heat.
Served two to an order, pork and shrimp spring rolls are large enough to share and could stand on their own as a light lunch. They hold juicy shrimp, vermicelli glass noodles, lettuce and matchstick carrots, but pork is sliced so thin it comes across as an afterthought.
Braised pork belly featured in the steamed buns was similarly cut into thin strips, which rendered the meat dry. Shrimp and beef versions are a better bet, pairing well with the pickled vegetables and fresh herbs.
Rice plates and vermicelli bowls are satisfying and most hover around $10, offering good bang for the buck. In one version, grilled eye of round was shaved into long, thin strips, and the meat was marinated in a sweet soy and sesame oil, rendering a typically tough cut sweet and tender.
Most dishes include some combination of salty, sweet, spicy and sour flavors, typically found across Southeast Asian cuisines.
Duck "coleslaw" consists of finely shredded cabbage, julienned carrots and thinly sliced red onions topped with wedges of tender duck breast, and ginger vinaigrette is served on the side. The ginger flavor and vinaigrette's acidity paired well with the earthy undertones of the duck, while sprigs of fresh mint and basil added an herbaceous layer. Razor-thin onions fried golden brown were piled on top of the salad, adding texture and crunch.
Egg rolls, often victims of the deep fryer, are fried just so, retaining a tan, matte exterior rather than a glossy sheen of grease. They are filled with the hearty flavors of shredded pork and wood ear mushrooms balanced with pickled and fresh carrots, vermicelli, lettuce and mint. Fish sauce provides the backbone for the accompanying vinaigrette, a binding factor that ties all the elements together.
For dessert, bananas are battered and fried, topped with honey and served with vanilla ice cream. Teas and coffees sweetened with condensed milk make for an equally sugary after-dinner treat, but are great at any time of day, as is the food at this casual French Quarter cafe.