Pho is a reliable benchmark for sizing up casual Vietnamese restaurants, so it's usually my go-to dish when I visit one for the first time. At Thanh Truc Bistro, however, the pho had to wait because the bakery case was just too enticing.
Thanh Truc is a friendly, modern-if-modest, family-run cafe and bakery in a cluster of strip malls in Kenner. There's a lightly stocked bar, a cloudy fish tank and, under an arch of purple light fixtures, that bakery case. Baguettes jut from wicker sheathes beside it, and croissants and cinnamon rolls line its top. Inside sits row after row of kolaches — pastries native to central Europe that have been enthusiastically adopted in Texas but are rare at Vietnamese bakeries.
On later visits, the Thanh Truc pho proved excellent. The steamy broth is robust with anise and onion, and a full-flavored beefy sheen coats the palate. The menu includes many Vietnamese standards, like pressed rice noodle cakes with pork or shrimp, large salads of cabbage and grilled meats dressed in nuoc mam and a number of spring rolls, including unusual ones with baked salmon and tuna. There also are some serviceable though unremarkable Chinese dishes.
It's the bakery on premises, however, and the unexpected ways Thanh Truc uses it that set this place apart. Contemporary American kolaches can appear in any number of shapes and sizes. At Thanh Truc, they're palm-sized domes of yeasty, slightly sweet bread, almost like brioche, filled with jellied fruit, cream cheese or breakfast combos like eggs and sausage. They cost $1 to $2 and they're quickly heated in the microwave, so they're just right for a snack or hand-held breakfast on the run.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Thanh Truc's owners, Ngoc To and Bach Nguyen, ran a corner store near the former St. Bernard housing project in New Orleans. Their new place represents a quantum leap forward for the family business, but the baking operation is still pretty small. Beyond the kolaches there are usually a half-dozen or so different items. Delicate-looking almond braids are in fact dense enough to stop a bullet, and there are homespun "ooey gooey" brownie bars.
The place serves breakfast sandwiches and banh mi on the house baguette, though these sandwiches are more like New Orleans po-boys with Vietnamese fillings. The loaves are roughly twice the size of typical banh mi, with pale, readily crumbling crusts carrying hunks of broiled pork or brightly hued Vietnamese ham dressed with the usual mix of fresh, pickled, cool and spicy elements.
Like most bakeries, Thanh Truc gets an early start, opening at 7 a.m. That positions this Kenner find equally well for a stop en route to the airport or to pick up an unexpected kolache breakfast for the office.