Sunday, March 1, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Vietnamese Village, New Orleans

In my never-ending quest for great ethnic food and my thirst for "adventures," as I like to refer to my random ramblings about town, my best friend--one of my favorite Partners in Dine--and I embarked on one such adventure this morning, in search of a near-mythical settlement known to native New Orleanians (versus transplants like ourselves) as "Vietnamese Village." Reputedly a Mecca of cheap, authentic Vietnamese eats as well as highly negotiable jewelry and hot, fresh-baked goods, this little niche sounded too good to be true.

Although in Google we trust, our trusty search engine of choice failed us today. Seeking to find more information about Vietnamese Village, we were able to find only a few fuzzy leads. I remember being told something about getting off I-10 at the Chalmette/Little Woods exit, east of New Orleans. Chef Menteur Highway had a few listings for Vietnamese restaurants in pretty close proximity. Were we getting warmer? We also knew that New Orleans East, where the bulk of the Hurricane Katrina damage was centralized, had a notably large Vietnamese population before the storm. What the numbers are now, three years later, is questionable.

We decided to head out in the general direction of New Orleans East, and thanks to Leah's boyfriend's handy-dandy fancily newfangled navigation system, decided to head towards Little Woods, since three Vietnamese restaurants only a few miles from one another came up for that area. North of bayou territory Chalmette, on the eastern bend of Lake Pontchartrain, we found Little Woods to be a cute residential area with some pretty nice suburban homes, reminiscent of Gentilly. In other words, big neutral grounds, Spanish-style homes, and a LOT of abandoned property.

However, this was all discovered on the return trip, taking the more direct but still back route to Leah's house in Gentilly. Since we were roaming pretty aimlessly (hence, the "adventure"), the way we took down Chef Menteur Highway to Alcee Fortier Boulevard was fairly depressing and deserted. Big industrial-looking buildings line the shores of the multiple bodies of water, and the gray skies overhead didn't help to make it look any more cheerful. What was worse was seeing signs that looked promising (i.e. letters with accents and characters incomprehensible) only to realize that the windows had been black, empty holes for years and that civilization had long left these neighborhooods for dead. Passing by military centers that I hadn't even known existed in such close proximity to metropolitan New Orleans and driving by the raised grassy levees was a more positive experience, but again, that was the way home ... the way there was full of red herrings and false leads.

Finally, we reached a big stretch of raggedy strip mall/shopping center-type buildings (photo left courtesy of AP Photo), with unfamiliar wording and accent marks not seen in English with unpronouncable letter combinations. Could this be Vietnamese Village, Village de l'Est, Versailles? The urban legend that promises fresh Asian flavors, crisp vegetables, and fabulously addicting dishes for under $10 a pop? A sign half-covered by a large bush confirms this a few blocks over, but the biggest giveaway was when we stepped into the restaurant and bakery with the most overflowing parking lot (Nha Hang Dong Phuong Restaurant: 14207 Chef Menteur Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70129), and realized there was only one table with white people in it--the most important sign of having found an ethnic paradise.

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