Ready to Roll

If you want some of New Orleans’s most-coveted Vietnamese egg rolls, you’ll have to be willing to travel.

Vietnamese food has so much to offer, from piping-hot bowls of soul-satisfying pho to grilled pork with rice noodles (bún thịt nướng), washing it all down with a strong, yet sweet cafe sua da. It’s a cuisine that never fails to inspire long sighs and contented smiles. Perhaps it might seem almost unfair, then, to wax poetic about what is possibly the least hearth-full (or healthful?) dish, but there aren’t many able to resist the pull of those magically-crisp egg rolls.

There are two main characteristics that set Vietnamese-style egg rolls apart from the pack. The first, and most obvious, is the crisp, bubbly texture of the wrap. This singularly chewy crunch is achieved by using moistened rice paper wrappers (the same used for spring rolls), and by deep-frying the rolls twice; once during preparation and then again right before serving.

The second defining aspect of these ravishing rolls is the sauce . . . isn’t it always about the sauce? Not all dipping sauces are equal and some might say nước mắm rises above the pack, a delicate balance of sweet, spice and tang elevating every bite to new heights, a sauce that makes a delightful match with so much more than egg rolls. Fish sauce is the key to its savory flavor, and depending upon where you go, it’s also accented with citrus like lime or lemon, rice wine vinegar, and garnished with thinly-sliced red chilis, pickled carrots, and white radish . . . but where do you go?

Luckily for us, there is no shortage of stellar Vietnamese food in New Orleans. If you ask any local for their favorite spot and you’ll likely get a shortlist depending upon which part of town you might be in. Now, quite a few spots make their egg rolls with wheat flour-based wrappers, and we can’t blame them, as the preparation process is less onerous, the roll stays crispy for longer, and it still produces a gobble-worthy egg roll, but we’re looking for those crisp, bubbly rice wrappers, right? Right.

Pho Bang is one such spot to find these bubbly beauties, and there’s five locations across the Greater New Orleans Area to choose from. The restaurant was originally founded in New Orleans East by Yen Vu in the mid-80s, but the family business has spread far beyond the confines of Louisiana to Texas, New York and Montreal. Since each location is run by different branches of the family, the flavors and recipes tend to vary, but at the shop on Westbank Expressway in Gretna, the egg rolls alone are worth a return trip. Packed with sweet and savory ground pork and fried crisp right before serving, these are always hot when they come to the table and they always disappear within minutes. Pho Bang (at this location) also professed to make their own fish sauce, one that’s loaded with a flurry of carrot and sprinkled with just enough chili to warm your tongue.

Only a few blocks away, Tan Dinh is a restaurant oft-brought to local lips when discussing the merits of Vietnamese cuisine. Beloved by Westbank denizens and beyond, the restaurant’s atmosphere is delightfully “old-school” and the menu features a few dishes not generally found in fast-casual, lunchtime-oriented eateries ie. Lemongrass pork skewers, and battered and deep-fried pork spare ribs. Most important to this discussion are their lovely, crisp rolls, stuffed with a combination of ground pork, carrots, wood ear mushrooms and rice noodles. A lot of things have changed at Tan Dinh over the years, but that particular dish has not.

Vermicelli Bowl with chargrilled pork and egg rolls at Ba Chi Canteen

Like so many New Orleans restaurants, it’s all in the family which brings us to Ba Chi Canteen. Literally a sibling restaurant to Tan Dinh, Ba Chi Canteen opened on Maple Street in the Riverbend nearly a decade ago, but has recently moved its digs to a larger space on 8th Street in Metairie, near Lakeside Mall. Owner and chef Phát Vũ has, from the beginning, liked to play riffs on traditional Vietnamese cuisine, case in point his signature “Bacos” featuring a soft, bao-like “shell” stuffed with everything from char-grilled pork to fried catfish. Like Tan Dinh, Ba Chi Canteen also serves large, crispy, rice paper egg rolls and when loaded into a vermicelli bowl with pink-edged slices of pork, it’s a match made in heaven.

We’ll wrap it up with a recent newcomer to the New Orleans Vietnamese-food scene, Elizabeth Street Cafe. Launched inside the newly renovated Hotel Saint Vincent on Magazine Street in Spring 2021, the French Vietnamese cafe and bakery offers breakfast, lunch and dinner whether you’re dining in or taking out, featuring dishes like a fried egg banh mi with pork belly and avocado, beignets with guava and strawberry jam, a sticky fried shrimp rice bowl, or chicken meatball pho (a.k.a. pho ga vien). Though Elizabeth Street Cafe’s fried spring rolls are priced at a whopping $15 for two, they are crisp, rice paper-wrapped and stuffed with ginger pork sausage and Napa cabbage, and served with a bright nuac mam sauce for dipping.

How far are you willing to travel for rice paper-wrapped fried egg rolls?

*Article originally published in the February 2024 issue of Where Y’at Magazine

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