Proximity helped decide my own first favorite places for pho. One was the Pho Tau Bay location near my house in Mid-City and another was Purple Roses near the downtown office where I worked before Hurricane Katrina. The flood did them both in, with Pho Tau Bay reopening only its original Gretna restaurant and Purple Roses sitting in ruins that look as though the storm struck yesterday. So I had to branch out, and in doing so found my new favorite pho and a lot more at Tan Dinh.
The soul of any pho is its broth and the version prepared at Tan Dinh is robust with the flavor of beef bones boiled forever with a fragrant parade of clove, star anise, cilantro seed, fennel, cinnamon, ginger and onion, among other ingredients. All of this is before anyone adds from the requisite collection of hot sauces, jalapenos, limes, sprouts, cilantro and basil provided on the side, the fresh vegetables tasting as though they never knew the inside of a bag in their short lives. Slices of beef turn from near raw to rosy rare before your eyes as they continue cooking in the broth en route from kitchen to table. People who love pho eat it as frequently as the British drink tea, and Tan Dinh opens early for customers who have it for breakfast.
The recipes at Tan Dinh come straight from the southern part of Vietnam, the native home of owners Ngat "Maria" Vu and Minh Trieu. Their family moved to America in the late 1970s and by 1996 they had opened Tan Dinh at its original location on Belle Chase Highway. That first restaurant was the archetypical hole-in-the-wall joint, but the family did enough business to warrant a move in 2004 to its current location. Just a mile down the same road, the new Tan Dinh is aesthetically a world apart. The spacious dining room is bright, clean and colorful, with wall-mounted vases sprouting tropical flower arrangements and large, circular tables accommodating what must be entire extended families.
There's a bit of conventional wisdom among pho lovers that the chances of finding a good bowl of the stuff decrease in direct proportion to the size of the menu. If that's true, Tan Dinh proves an exception to the rule. A seemingly endless variety of dishes issues from its kitchen window, each time heralded by the sound of a gong rung to signal a readied order. It didn't take long before each gong found me looking up with Pavlovian anticipation, craning my neck for a glimpse of what the waiters were bringing the other diners around me. Ordering by their example led me to a mixed bag of food encounters: a "hotpot" with steaks of catfish cooked on the bone in a nice spicy, curry-style sauce, steamed chicken without much to recommend it besides saltiness and a salad that at least confirmed my hunch that cooked jellyfish would taste like marine-tinged tofu.
On other visits, though, I had help navigating the cuisine from my friend Toan Nguyen, a graphic designer who was born in Vietnam. Among other assistance, he helped me appreciate the importance of sauces, which accompany practically every Vietnamese dish and are not mere condiments but essential ingredients. The clearest example came from a dish I ordered one day before Toan showed up for lunch. Called steamed flour rolls, the foundation for this dish is something like a mass of noodle material before it becomes individual noodles. A "wet T-shirt on a plate" was one unimpressed companion's description. But Toan arrived just in time, and directed me to ladle some ginger-colored fish sauce from the mason jar provided on each table. The transformation was instant and that noodle material came to life as a smooth vehicle for the sauce and a foil to the crunchy sprouts, pickled carrots, lettuce, caramelized shallots and bits of roasted pork that completed the dish.
The most compelling dishes apart from the pho are those made with beef short ribs. Described on the menu as Korean-style, the meat is cut into thin strips and slow-cooked to give them a crusty exterior with an alluring texture that straddles the line between chewy and tender. The aroma is arrestingly appetizing and it only gets better from there, with each small slice bursting with fat and smokiness. Short ribs are currently a trend at fine-dining restaurants where they are usually served with greater ceremony and more expensive accoutrements, but at Tan Dinh you can sample a stack of them for about $7 a plate.
Like most of the meat preparations at Tan Dinh, the short ribs come with a choice of noodles or rice, some of which are the standard foundations for Vietnamese dishes. The "bun," for instance, is a bowl of thin rice noodles (generally called vermicelli) with plenty of fresh vegetables, and the same kind of noodles are available pressed into little cakes in which you can wrap the meat. There is straightforward white rice and also "sticky rice" -- round fried rice cakes that are lightly sweetened and taste a bit like Creole calas.
There is a slight sweetness to these cakes that goes especially well with Tan Dinh's rotisserie chicken, with its sticky-crisp skin and abundant seasoning. Another major specialty of the house is a concoction that translates as "shrimp paste sugarcane." Imagine shrimp meatloaf skewered on thumb-thick rods of sugarcane, which might sound less than crave-worthy until you find yourself sucking the shrimp flavor from the sweet, roasted cane like just about everyone else who tries it.