This year I had pork ribs marinating from early morning for my somewhat twisted version of the traditional American 4th of July barbecue. It was part of a plan, as a solo meat-eater who is far away from a customary family gathering that always includes such fare.
But I am being a tad eclectic in my own adaptation of the standard grill recipes. The firing of my long-marinated ribs requires first coating them with a once-original North Carolina spice rub that in my hands includes both Indian and Chinese kitchen flavors mixed with New Orleans cayenne, garlic and cane sugar.
But somehow, with the marinade well underway in the fridge, I was caught up in the midst of house-repair chores and the weekly food shopping, and somehow ended up at the noon lunch hour across the river from New Orleans, on what is known as the Westbank.
I had risen early and eaten no breakfast, so to hold me over for the planned BBQ dinner at home, I decided to visit the semi-fancy South Vietnamese restaurant Hoa Hong 9 (Nine Roses) for a round of appetizers. Enough to hold me over for the Big Meal.
I arrived at the restaurant to an empty parking lot. Closed for the 4th. Vietnamese celebrating American Independence, was my first incongruous thought. This observance I would not have guessed, as this is restaurant is very much a community center for the new immigrant families, on Sundays full of extended families in traditional dress, eating from communal lazy suzans at massive round tables. And now here they are, closed on the Fourth. I must say I was a tad mystified/intrigued at the implications. Trying to be culturally all-inclusive, Nine Roses serves both Vietnamese and Chinese food, but nothing “American”, and its menu is twenty packed pages long. But on Independence Day, it was, as I said, closed.
So I headed just a few blocks back north – there are literally dozens of Vietnamese restaurants in the immediate neighborhood – to Kim Son. The place is not my favorite, as it lists Chinese food as an attraction first on its signs, before its featured Vietnamese cuisine. Kim Son caters to American service personnel from the nearby military installations, and therefore mitigates the heat and spices and herbs native to its origins, in favor of blanding out for American tastes. The owners there added a large list of American-familiar Chinese dishes to their menu to appease US stomachs that might be afraid to venture into full-bore Vietnamese. I stopped going to Kim Son some years ago when they began refusing to use the Vietnamese fresh herbs so essential to the cuisine because their military customers found the tastes too strong for their mess-hall-trained palates.
This day when I arrive, there are a few cars parked in the lot, but they do not belong to customers. A sign on the door announces that the place is also celebrating Independence Day, but this time by closing for the entire month of July. In search of just a few tasty bites, I am stumped again.
The convergences of civilizations are becoming increasingly puzzling. Unlike the French Catholic North Vietnamese who have clustered into a community in New Orleans East, the immigrants on the Westbank are primarily Buddhist, and the fare quite different. Though both groups serve banh mi, the ubiquitous Vietnamese po-boy. Which for the locals is another connection with our own culture – I mean, these folk like to fish, drink beer, eat rice dishes and wolf down po-boys. New Orleans natives figure: what’s not to like?
My own favorite banh mi, a perfect translation of the New Orleans muffaletta sandwich, is called DacBiet, which means "special." It is just that, fresh baked six-inch baguettes usually piled with four distinctive Vietnamese meats and an herb/vinegar combination: jambon, their own cured ham; giòthủ, headcheese; cha lua, pork and chicken ground with spices, wrapped in banana leaf, boiled, and then sliced like to look like bologna; and pâté gan, a pork liver paté.
The French bread is best out in the east among the Gallic-trained patisseries;Dong Phuong bakes its own bread for the sandwiches, and furnishes bread to many others, like Banh Mi Sao Mai, right down the street.
But they are both fifteen miles in the opposite direction. Much too far for a man in the grasps of inordinately loud stomach growling. An option I immediately consider is heading to Than Dinh, a personal working-class favorite on Lafayette street in the nearby town of Gretna. I turn around again and start driving back south. A logistical problem immediately surfaces, though, as I realize that this is turning out to be a bit more of a journey for what was to be a simple stopgap lunch, involving much more time and effort than I really want to expend.
It is then, still driving south, that I stumble back upon Pho Tau Bay, coming up in less than a mile under my side of the elevated highway. A seriously down-home family-style eatery plugged into a decaying strip mall, it is run by an American-Vietnamese couple. The kitchen specializes in another of the defining dishes of Vietnam, pho, an ethereal and unusually large bowl of soup made from any of a myriad of ingredients.
At PTB, the genial and traditionally dressed Asian wife works the front door and counter greeting customers. The ever-smiling-and-engaging American husband runs the kitchen. His head is sticking out of the service window as I arrive, his upper body clad in a sweaty “All-American Dad” t-shirt emblazoned with the stars and stripes. It is the 4th of July.
I hadn’t been back here since before the extended Katrina debacle, before I started to eat Vietnamese as often and as seriously (and happily) as I do now. The restaurant has not changed, but my own palate has certainly upgraded in appreciation. What was gastronomically puzzling and off-putting eight years ago has now fallen into my appetite’s mainstream.
The menu is terrific, though now printed on just the two sides of a single massive plastic sheet, it has actually expanded from its former six-page version. Especially in the inclusion of plates of fresh herbs and vegetables and their accompanying sauces and dips, everything is consummately authentic and deeply Viet, no hedging bets by including Chinese fare like the other restaurants.
It is also a wonderful cultural experience, just sitting there amidst the completely casual crowd, every table containing another active and positive story. An ever-so-funky dining room, full of Asian matriarchs standing at the counter picking up massive noontime meals for their families, carrying the meticulously prepared food out the door in multiple bulging white bags. These temporary visitors are countered by older finely-dressed ladies sitting at multi-seat tables, together slowly sipping tapioca tea and animatedly gossiping, all the while moving perfectly rouged lips imperfectly concealed behind perfectly manicured fingertips. And then there are a few young hip Anglo waiters, smiling as they explain the complex dishes, and varying chili heats, to first-timers. Needless to say, I am entranced.
I eat and eat and drink jasmine tea, staying for almost two hours, reading and re-reading the menu in preparation for next time. Which I promise myself for this week.
But the end result of all that gustatory dawdling is that I eat way too much and stay way too long for what was to be at most just a bite to quell the appetite. Just over an hour later I find myself standing in my patio amidst waves the sweltering New Orleans summer heat. It does not take much in the way of logic to finally decide on skipping the hassle of the traditional meal, an activity that would require firing up the barbecue grill and standing further outside sweating with only the mosquitoes for company for a minimum of two hours of cooking.
I begin to wonder. How can it be that my US of A Independence Day was shoved off course by a foreign culture? Asians nonetheless. Newt Gingrich was actually right about the distorting influence of tidal waves of Oriental infringement!
Can I face the fact that I am now forced to execute the pre-planned All-American BBQ operation today, on the quite inappropriate July the 5th?
In this ever-so-restrictive ever-so-defective election-year universe of addled Republican “birthers” and self-inflated Democratic “constitutionalists”, I can only wonder if a delayed government-holiday-oriented BBQ is even legal?
Will I be subject to a penalty for my transgression? Will I have to pay a tax for not having complied with implied requirements from some ill-conceived and over-wrought law? Will the Supreme Court allow an expansion of 4th of July repast restrictions, forgiving a traditional meal that is served outside its pre-defined time parameters?
Must I now show proof of citizenship before dining?
I will vote Independent.