Among those skipping red beans was a table of styled-out thrifters communing over cafe sua da (rocket-fueled coffee and sweetened condensed milk over ice); a troupe of neatly shorn Vietnamese men, a couple of them wearing cowboy boots and most of them drinking the shell-pea-fresh housemade soy milk; a single young professional who longed for the sticky rice and chicken he can only get at the original Gretna location; a middle-aged couple, star-struck by their first encounter with this food, asking visitors from Wisconsin how they liked the Saigon Taco; and those Wisconsinites, ripping through their Saigon Taco, a crisp, coconut-flavored rice flour crepe enveloping shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, all of which you wrap in lettuce leaves and dip into the sweet, fishy, house nuoc mam sauce.
Vietnamese cooking has been creeping onto the scene at least since the 1975 fall of Saigon, an event that spurred thousands of Vietnamese citizens to seek refuge in the area. The Vietnamese currently comprise the largest Asian population in both Jefferson and Orleans parishes; the concentration of Vietnamese restaurants in the latter is finally catching up.
New Orleans also harbors a population of food adventurers, non-Vietnamese eaters who pore over Vietnamese menus like a high schooler on summer break studies TV Guide. But for the many others who have yet to dunk into a baptismal bowl of pho, this newest Pho Tau Bay provides some basic assurances. Marked by a sleek sign shaped like an oversized credit card, the tidy, pistachio-green dining rooms are hemmed in by arrow-straight horizontal window blinds -- a modern look that doesn't so much stimulate appetites as it exudes confidence.
An energetic, English-speaking staff is equally reassuring; servers play ambassador with youthful poise, encouraging discovery while patiently explaining the function of fresh herbs, the merits of dipping sauces, and how long to stir the soda sua hot ga (a frothy beverage of club soda, condensed milk and egg yolk that tastes like fizzy pudding when properly mixed). Unlike many suburban ethnic restaurants, Pho Tau Bay doesn't shutter before prime time, thus catering to later diners who express their appreciation by showing up 30 seconds before it closes.
Vietnamese food can be simply lovely or totally weird, depending upon what you order, where you are, and, of course, who you are. In general, Pho Tau Bay's kitchens are conservative. This one adds pork knuckles only upon request to the fiery-funky bun bo hue soup, and it ditches the traditional tablets of pork blood altogether. You may have to ask twice for the essential hot green chiles on your banh mi thit nuong, a crazy-good grilled pork, crisp vegetable and French bread sandwich. Servers are also selective about who qualifies for chopsticks and who gets silverware.
Skittish diners might consider test driving the pho tai, a mellow rice noodle soup containing blushing slices of beef that cook to well-done in the steaming beef broth before your eyes. You can doctor up any pho with basil, bean sprouts, lime juice, hoisin sauce, spicy "rooster" sauce and more, or nothing at all. Spring rolls make perfect crowd pleasers; the best of them here contain cold vermicelli noodles, pulsating mint, and either grilled shrimp or thinly sliced beef whose lemon grass flavor is so brazen it almost tastes medicinal. Skittish diners might reconsider ordering dishes with chicken, even though it's the standard fallback, as chicken here tends to get short shrift on moisture and seasoning.
Not so for the half Cornish hen, which is boldly marinated and fried in one piece to a deep brown polish; honey-mustard sauce touched with salty hoisin comes on the side, along with plain jasmine rice to counterbalance the intensity. And the mien ga is a beautiful soup despite its tough chicken -- gossamer bean thread noodles and delicate bamboo shoots float in a cloudless broth that's so thick with chicken flavor it needs no doctoring.
Rife with fresh herbs and vegetables, and tossed with nuoc mam sauce, vermicelli salad bowls make super, and super-versatile, summer meals, but vermicelli patties can be even more fun. The steamed noodle patties are flat as a tortilla and come topped with all varieties of grilled meat, shrimp or tofu, plus fried shallots and green onions. You sandwich the noodles and everything else into lettuce leaves, to be dunked into the refreshing nuoc mam. Pho Tau Bay's housemade desserts are off-the-hook, always a surprise. Plain, cream-top yogurt is as tart as it is sweet, and there's an unlikely but terrific caramel flan. The che 3 mau is riskier, but it repays the gamble tenfold with its flashy layering of yellow mung bean paste, sweetened red beans, green coconut jellies and thick coconut cream; mixing the striated colors together with pebbled ice creates a sort of Space Age milkshake that you eat with a spoon. It almost makes you forget that Angelo Brocato is right next door.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Server Tommy Hoang is part of an efficient service staff at the new PHO TAU BAY location along the new streetcar line on Carrollton Avenue.