If you arrive at New Orleans’ Vietnamese Farmers’ Market at 7:30 on a Saturday morning, you’re already a bit too late. Yes, there will be plenty of durian fruit and frozen fish left to buy, but the party is largely over and the sellers are already packing up for a 9am closing time. The sun has fully risen and the market is pretty much dead.
“Get here when you need to use a flashlight to see what you’re buying,” one regular shopper advises. But don’t worry — because around the corner from the dwindling market, the legendary Dong Phuong Bakery is opening for the day. Bánh mì, bean cakes, and almond croissants await. Packs of playful, undomesticated dogs will lead you there from the market.
Approximately twelve miles east of downtown New Orleans — past the abandoned Six Flags, right before the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge — is the most concentrated, multigenerational Vietnamese community in the Crescent City. Since 1975, the neighborhood of New Orleans East has become home to tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees throughout the decades. Much of this is attributed to the efforts of the still-active Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Such is the case with many immigrant communities that flourished during the 1970s in various parts of the country — the Catholic Church played such a pivotal role. On one hand, this effort is historically known to be appreciated, but, on the other, it is problematic in the expectation that immigrants adopt the religion as their own when the church never played a part in their pre-refugee lives.
In his 2021 debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water, the author Eric Nguyen describes the various shocks and adjustments, including the overwhelming presence of Catholicism, experienced by the main character when she arrives in New Orleans. The single mother and her two young sons move to the main complex that housed the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s:
Versailles was built on the eastern outskirts of New Orleans, across from the Industrial Canal, where the tall buildings were replaced by swampland. Gated by a chain-link fence on the front and flush against a bayou in the back, Versailles held ten apartment buildings, each with two homes, one on top of the other. The buildings dotted the sides of an unpaved road that ran through the middle of Versailles until it ended at the water.
Over decades, Versailles swelled into blocks upon blocks of single-family homes known as Village de L’est. Even though the neighborhood remained at a distance from the city center, there were familiar overlaps between New Orleans and Vietnam: French language and culture, climate (Hanoi and New Orleans are on the same latitude), proximity to water and an energetic fishing culture. However, three different bodies of water encompass New Orleans East — and in 2005, the flooding from Hurricane Katrina completely submerged the area underwater.
While Village de L’est has rebuilt and stabilized from Katrina, the Vietnamese community branched out to reside and run businesses all over the city of New Orleans and its adjacent parishes. Geared more towards locals than tourists, Vietnamese cuisine is ever-present and much beloved in this culinary hub. New Orleans East provides a good starting point but to truly get to know what is happening, one must be willing to travel into the city, across the Mississippi River, and other marginal neighborhoods that have made their mark with memorable flavors and stories.
Dong Phuong Bakery
Dong Phuong in New Orleans East is the first Vietnamese restaurant and bakery in New Orleans. Huong Tran, the original baker, revitalized the traditional recipes she learned from her father who owned a bakery in Vietnam. At first, the bakery only drew the attention of the Vietnamese community, but when Dong Phuong started making french bread loaves, people came from all over the city to buy them. When the sandwich counter opened in 1991, their bánh mìs drew crowds. Due to their perfectly flakey brioche dough and the finite number (something like 35,000) they make during Mardi Gras season, Dong Phuong is consistently voted the best king cake in the city.
Eat Well Food Mart
One of the most beloved Vietnamese eateries in the city is a counter at the back of a small convenience store on Canal and Broad in the Mid-City neighborhood. Frequented by employees of the Orleans Public Defenders office, the pho and bánh mìs are reliably traditional and delectable. While Eat Well serves Vietnamese staples, they are also known for their hybrid invention “the phoritto” (imagine if a bowl of pho and a burrito had a baby...with more pho-dominant traits).
Trek across the Mississippi River to the Gretna neighborhood for one of the best Vietnamese meals in New Orleans. First, their pho broth is a perfect blend of slightly sweet (perhaps from the cardamom and cinnamon?) with a distinct rich bone flavor. Please do not insult this broth by putting Sriracha in your pho. Being fairly newer to the Vietnamese restaurant scene, Tân Định has dishes that “you won’t find at other Vietnamese restaurants” such as their succulent Cornish hen dishes.
Pho Tau Bay
Pho Tau Bay has been serving authentic Vietnamese cuisine in New Orleans for over thirty years. Owned by a Vietnamese family of business-centric restauranteurs, they started with a pho restaurant near a Vietnamese airbase before they moved to New Orleans (Tau Bay means airport, translating their restaurant name to “airport soup”). Their food ticks all the boxes without trying too hard, making them a steady option near the downtown hospitals and courthouses.
Lilly is a lovely woman who turns everything she touches to sunshine and flowers. Located in the Lower Garden District, Lilly’s Cafe is a delicate, warm setting serving traditional Vietnamese dishes graced with her tiny embellishments. Her Lilly Rolls contain sliced strawberries amongst the other classic spring roll components, the white onions usually found in pho are replaced with shallots. The well-balanced, nurturing pho is addictive. Also, Lilly’s Vietnamese iced coffee is unrivaled.
Kim Ahn Noodle House
If you find yourself west of the city, near the airport, Kim Ahn Noodle House is a standard choice for Vietnamese food. Very kind to the wallet and made with integrity, the family restaurant has been around for several decades. Kim Ahn used to be located in New Orleans East until a tragic 1995 robbery of the restaurant resulted in the murder of three of the family members who worked there. As a result, they relocated to the complete opposite side of town to the Harahan suburb where they’ve thrived since.
Bywater Brew Pub
There are neighborhoods in New Orleans that are completely devoid of Vietnamese food. The restaurant-filled Bywater used to be one of those until Bywater Brew Pub opened in 2020. Head chef and New Orleans East native, Anh Luu, offers a playful Viet-Cajun menu with appetizers such as lemongrass pork rolls and chicken wings coated in fish sauce. She also features her own take on the phorrito (uncertain if she or Eat Well invented it first).
Nine Roses is a great place to celebrate birthdays, promotions, anniversaries, etc. A partnership of Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines, chef Mama Tu opened the restaurant on the West Bank in 1992 and hasn’t been able to keep the doors closed. Her daughter and son-in-law currently run the restaurant on the West Bank and continue to maintain its ranking as a local favorite. Fish dishes are a must.