In Search of New Orleans’ Vietnamese Soul

On a recent Thursday morning, I walked into Magasin Kitchen, a two-month-old restaurant in New Orleans’ Central Business District. It was ten minutes before noon, but even so, each of the 39 seats was occupied. On nearly every table sat large white bowls filled with golden broth, billowing aromatic steam. Any of a dozen restaurants could begin an illustration of Vietnamese cuisine as an indelible part of dining in New Orleans, but let’s start here, with the newest arrival.

Visually, Magasin Kitchen is an unlikely poster child for New Orleans’ Vietnamese soul. Its exterior, a neutral, impassive face of steel girding and reflective windows, gives no indication of what type of food is being offered, and neither does the casual-mod decor: dangling, bowl-shaped light fixtures, concrete floors and walls stained in splotches resembling radar pics of swirling weather patterns. But the menu is unmistakable. It lists variations on dishes like pho, bun, and banh mi under headers without descriptors or clarifications, no explanatory annotations like “beef noodle soup,” “rice noodle salad,” or “Vietnamese sandwiches.”

Here, the customers — multigenerational, white-collar, mostly non-Asian —€” don’t require them. They know these Southeast Asian classics delivered as agreeable, mainstreamed versions of their Platonic ideals. Hints of cinnamon and star anise in the pho breezed across the palate like a passing thought. A banh mi’s baguette crunched mightily, the cilantro, carrot, and cucumber cool against hot grilled pork, but the overall flavor could have used a pungent swipe of pâté, a common addition.

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ESSENTIALS

Magasin Kitchen: 611 O’Keefe Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 571-5677
Magasin Vietnamese Cafe: 4201 Magazine Street, New Orleans, (504) 986-7611, magasincafe.com
Lilly’s Cafe: 1813 Magazine Street, New Orleans, (504) 599-9999
Killer Poboys: 811 Conti Street (back of the Erin Rose Bar), New Orleans, (504) 252-6745; 219 Dauphine Street, New Orleans, (504) 462-2731, killerpoboys.com
Tan Dinh: 1705 Lafayette Street, Gretna, (504) 361-8008
Kim Son: 349 Whitney Avenue, Gretna, (504) 366-2489, kimsonnola.com
Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery: 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, (504) 254-0214, dpbanhmi.com
Namese: 4077 Tulane Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 483-8899, namese.net
Nine Roses Cafe: 620 Conti Street, New Orleans, (504) 324-9450, ninerosesrestaurant.com
Nine Roses: 1000 Stephens Street, Gretna, (504) 366-7665, ninerosesrestaurant.com
Ba Mien: 13235 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, (504) 255-0500
Pho Bang: 14367 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, (504) 254-3929
MoPho: 514 City Park Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 482-6845, mophonola.com
Kin: 4600 Washington Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 304-8557

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