There's an area in eastern New Orleans where the competition between Vietnamese noodle soups is as fierce as the fried chicken war waging in other parts of the city. If you've driven this stop-and-go route, you've probably noticed the snazzy cars parked outside sketchy motels, the roadside salesmen hawking watermelons and hospital scrubs, and the sun-bleached shopping centers with hauntingly empty lots. Just when you think you've seen it all, the shiny Van Hahn Buddhist Center materializes on the south side of Chef Menteur Highway.
It's here, at the intersection of Michoud Boulevard, where signs indicate that you've found Versailles, a neighborhood largely populated by Vietnamese immigrants. Across from the Buddhist center sits a lively strip mall buzzing with shoppers entering 99 Supermarket to buy gallons of fresh soy milk and ripe jackfruit the size of Scottish Terriers. Women in traditional dress approach the Kim Ahn Reception Hall arm-in-arm with daughters who shop at Limited Express. And all kinds file into Ba Mien to pore over the four-page menu, which is a crash course in Vietnamese eating.
Ba Mien is clean, big and family-friendly. The high walls and curtains are colored mauve and mint green, and art deco-style lighting fixtures dangle above. Only pastoral paintings imported from Vietnam blatantly indicate the restaurant's ethnicity. It would take a wedding group from the reception hall to fill every vinyl-covered chair; large families tend to covet entire sections for themselves. You'll feel most at home if you bring at least one person under three feet tall, especially if you're served by the petite waitress who loves to talk about her own seven children.
The kitchen has a more-is-more philosophy, offering soups in three sizes -- the largest as massive as a multiple-serving tureen -- and spring rolls heavier than sticks of butter. One vermicelli noodle bowl could feed a small family, and $2 Vietnamese-style po-boys are made with baguettes the size of Shaq's high-top. Prices are absurdly low: five good eaters can lunch like royalty for $45, including bubble tea.
For my favorite dishes, banh cuon ("steamed roll"), a mixture of rice flour and water is steamed and formed into thin, gummy sheets. In banh cuon thanh tri, the milky white sheets are sprinkled with chewy caramelized onions, folded upon themselves like wide lasagna noodles and served with spongy cold cuts and a salad of bean sprouts and mint. You can also get the sticky sheets stretched around whole cilantro stems and delicious nibbles of char-grilled pork salty as a Slim Jim (banh cuon thit nuong). Both the stuffed and the rolled banh cuon come with tangy-sweet fish sauce for dipping.
A quick assessment of the room establishes that most customers order one of the 21 soups. The Vietnamese eat pho bo and pho ga, popular beef and chicken noodle soups, as sturdy breakfasts, balanced lunches and late-night repasts. While Ba Mien's pho bo and pho ga are passable specimens, neither is pristine. The pho bo, usually made with a limpid broth of boiled bones and carefully balanced spices, is oddly dark and murky; a brassy cinnamon flavor outshines any other spice. The beef itself is faultless, particularly rare slices that fade from pink to gray in the hot broth like the final moments of a sunset.
On the flip side, pho ga is made with delicate chicken broth but unpleasant, dry chicken. Given the surplus of pho shops in the neighborhood, My Tho is the only soup I would order again at Ba Mien. Named for the Vietnamese city, it's a seafood noodle soup with processed fish balls stuck with herbs, imitation crab, shrimp and chickeny broth. All soups come with platters of herbs, which include mung bean sprouts, green chiles, lime, cilantro and either the common wide-leaf basil, or the smaller, pointed basil that permeates soup with a licorice-like astringency. On Saturdays, there's also ngo gai, the sawtooth herb that tastes like lemony aluminum foil.
On weekends, a large-screen television plays sentimental Vietnamese music videos while the kitchen makes exemplary house specials. Goi ngo sen is a heaping slaw-like salad of shrimp, cabbage, carrot, mint, crushed peanuts and thin strips of lotus root, which tastes like a cross between cabbage and coconut -- all dressed with mild fish sauce. Several specials are kits for building your own spring rolls. The most exotic is nem nuong Khanh Hoa, a do-it-yourself dish that's a fine example of how sometimes the most unusual foods are also the most down-to-earth. You roll damp rice paper around simple, perfectly complementary ingredients like grilled sausages, vermicelli noodles, romaine, cucumbers, mint, pickled carrot, deep-fried rice paper for crunch, and slivers of green mango and unripe, starchy banana.
A couple who wandered in one Saturday for this roll-your-own specialty also brought their young son and his lunch of choice: Popeye's fried chicken. Still, when his parents' meal arrived, he forgot his chicken and dug in. Ba Mien might not the champion of Vietnamese noodle soups, but it's a glorious thing to find a neighborhood and a restaurant where fast food still takes the backseat.
- Cheryl Gerber
- A four-page menu at BA MIEN offers soups, spring rolls and specials.