In 1989, when Michael Le opened his first cafe in the Central Business District, his son was 1 year old. Over the next 28 years, Le and his wife Michelle opened more than 10 restaurants, seafood markets and cafes across the New Orleans area, from Metairie to Belle Chasse and Chalmette.
Le's son now helps run the couple's newest endeavor, and it's a full-time family affair at their sunny Vietnamese cafe, which occupies the space left vacant by Il Posto Italian Cafe.
In recent years, the couple has gravitated to menus and concepts that reflect their Vietnamese roots, and that's the case here, where a small selection of Southern breakfast staples, such as barbecue shrimp with grits and breakfast po-boys, are offered among an array of traditional Vietnamese dishes.
Fillings like lemon grass pork, chicken, beef and fried seafood are folded into banh mi and steamed buns. Five-spice barbecued pork belly with warm flavors of ginger and star anise is part of a traditional banh mi topped with sliced pork, pate, pickled carrots, cucumber spears, cilantro and slivers of jalapeno.
Craggy-edged fried oysters burst with flavor in steamed buns slathered with a tangy remoulade, crunchy red cabbage coleslaw and thick jalapeno wedges. Loosely wrapped spring rolls are packed with matchstick strips of carrot, daikon radishes, cucumbers, vermicelli and crunchy lettuce leaves and served with a soupy and flavorful peanut sauce. Earthy minced pork and carrots fill golden-fried egg rolls, which soak up just enough cooling, vinegary nuoc cham sauce while still staying crispy.
The kitchen often sticks to the hallmark of Vietnamese cooking with dishes comprising a few fresh ingredients. A simple green salad recently was delightfully fresh and had the pleasant surprise of frilly shiso leaves peeking out between the green layers.
A vermicelli bowl topped with lemon grass chicken was another example of the fresh and bright flavors for which the Southeast Asian cuisine is known. Here, the bowl of chewy noodles serves as the canvas for a bouquet of fresh herbs and pickled vegetables including basil, mint, lettuce, carrots, daikon and cucumbers. The slightly sweet and warm juices from the chicken sink into the noodles while fried shallots and peanuts add crunch to a satisfying dish.
There's not much beyond the standards, and it would be interesting to see what other Vietnamese recipes the owners might have up their sleeves.
For something sweet, one could look to breakfast, when there are doughy glazed cinnamon rolls and other fresh-baked pastries. Or dessert could come in liquid form. An icy, sweet matcha tea has warm tapioca bubbles and is almost ice cream-like in consistency.
The intermittent whir of a blender blares over a hodgepodge of diners including families convening over large steaming bowls of pho and college students hunched over croissants and laptops. It's all part of the cafe's casual appeal and inviting ambience.