I have always heard about the wonderful food in New Orleans: oysters, gumbo, jambalaya, and beignets, but not about the abundance of delicious Vietnamese food. It was Brian who read in the New York Times dinning section about the outstanding Vietnamese food in the area.
Thankfully the article In New Orleans, the Taste of a Comeback stuck with him so when we made it to the bustling town he was adamant about finding the best Vietnamese food he could. A server from Napoleon House told us that the best Vietnamese food was to be found outside of the town and across the river in Gretna, Louisiana at the restaurant called Hoa Hong 9 or Nine Roses.
Noise blasted from the highway in front of Hoa Hong 9, however at the sight of the two lions guarding it’s doors I felt suddenly transformed from the bustling city to the serenity that we found during our meal there.
Brian and I love to eat Pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup with meats, noodles, and a light meat broth, but thought we should try something else for a change.
I have had shrimp toast before but really nothing like what is served at Hoa Hong 9. BÁNH MÌ CHIÊN TÔM as it is listed on the menu is heartier then any shrimp toast I have had in the past. Shrimp paste was piled high on slices of white bread and the triangles were dropped into the fryer to emerge crisp and deep golden brown.
The shrimp paste has a strong flavor of the salty sea. The fattiness from crisp outside and the buttery bread complemented the rich yet fresh taste of shrimp. We dipped the corners of our toasty appetizer into a sweet duck sauce that was on our table. The sweetness created the perfect bite of sugary sauce, firm seafood, soft toast, and the rough, crisp outer shell.
We also shared BÚN THỊT NƯỚNG CHẢ GIÒ, or vermicelli with char-grilled strips of pork and a Vietnamese spring roll. The pork had been marinated before being laid on the hot grill. Green cabbage held a pile of translucent of vermicelli noodles topped with pork, peanuts, and scallions. A bowl of a vinegar fish sauce with strips of pickled carrots was to be poured a top the mountain of noodles.
Finally we had another taste of the house’s shrimp paste. In the dish CHẠO TÔM finely ground shrimp was molded around a long piece of sugar cane, and then it was grilled. I like that this was an interactive dish. Along with the shrimp we were given a plate of circular, hard, and thin rice paper, a bowl of hot water, and a dish filled with lettuce, mint, pickled carrots, cucumbers, and house-made peanut sauce.
Assembling our own shrimp rolls was lots of fun. First, the rice paper was quickly dipped into the hot water to make it flexible, then, a spoon full of peanut sauce was put down the middle which was then topped with a piece of shrimp that has been cut away from the sugar cane. A bit of the vegetables went on last, and the it was all rolled up!
I loved the sweet, char-grilled flavor of the shrimp. The ground shrimp paste took on a new flavor in this dish then the shrimp toast we had earlier. The slight stickiness of the rice paper, crunch of the lettuces and carrots, smoothness of the dark, sweet peanut sauce, and the tender bite of the shrimp all together created a wonderful variety of textures and flavors.
I was so happy at the end of our meal. I was full and couldn’t have eaten one more bite, though I would have loved to try more of the house specialties.
Beyond New Orleans’ well known cuisine of Soul Food, Cajun, and Creole new classics such as Vietnamese food are still helping to define this ever-changing culture. Keep Hoa Hong 9 (Nine Roses) in mind the next time you think of New Orleans food since it should definitely be on your list of must-eats while you visit the bayou.