There's no shortage of fantastic Vietnamese food in New Orleans, and in the past several years, traveling to destination eateries has become less necessary as new spots sprouted all over town. Many of these places are the product of second- and third-generation immigrants, which have honored traditional dishes and reinterpreted them in creative ways.
Banh Mi Boys, which opened in May in a tiny spot on Airline Drive, belongs to that breed of new Vietnamese restaurants. Owner Peter Nguyen's family ran several cafes in the city prior to Hurricane Katrina, but the dishes here carry the telltale mark of a younger generation not afraid to paint outside the lines.
Half of the menu stays within the confines of conventional Vietnamese fare, including banh mi sandwiches packed with pickled vegetables and vermicelli bowls topped with sweet and smoky grilled meats. The rest of the menu turns tradition on its head, featuring playful twists heavy on New Orleans influences. "Heavy" is the operative word here. This isn't spa cuisine.
Nguyen's creativity and indulgence yield spring rolls wrapped around fried egg roll halves and hunks of avocado. Fried oysters are doused in decadent "Rockefeller" sauce made with cheese, garlic, spinach and butter. That sauce tops everything from French fries to po-boys.
The pinnacle of this approach is steak-and-egg fries, a dish that puts debris fries to shame. Marinated and grilled chuck steak is sliced thin and served over a towering portion of fries along with pork pate, a sunny side up egg, caramelized onions, a drizzle of mayonnaise-based sauce and a shower of scallions. It might be overkill, but it's the ideal 2 a.m. drinker's dream: a mix that's sweet, salty and plenty fatty.
Classic Vietnamese dishes fall on the lighter side. Grilled pork strips have deep char marks and sweet and smoky flavor. The meat sits atop vermicelli noodles with a bouquet of fresh and pickled daikon radishes and carrots, fresh cucumbers and lettuce. Plump shrimp and thin slices of roasted pork fill spring rolls and come with thick, fiery peanut sauce. Fried egg rolls are packed with ground pork, shrimp and carrot spears and served with sweet and spicy chili-fish sauce.
Banh Mi Boys appears better suited if not designed as a takeout operation, but the abundance of fried food doesn't do anyone any favors. Light breading on fried catfish, oysters and shrimp succumb within minutes of pickup — all three quickly rendered soggy and unappetizing.
As the name implies, there are several iterations of the Vietnamese standby. Served on rolls from Duong Phuong Bakery and dressed with pickled vegetables and cilantro, the BMB combination packs it all in: thick slices of head cheese, ham, a healthy dose of pate and bright red morsels of sweet barbecued pork. It's as decadent a version of the Vietnamese sandwich as there is, and heavier than most on the meat-to-vegetable ratio. Like much of the food here it feels like a divergence from the more modest approach found at Vietnamese restaurants elsewhere — a fun twist on tradition.