New Orleans is a foodie town. It is filled with famous restaurants doing the traditional dishes they have been doing for a hundred years, and with restaurants whose chefs have become brand names by spinning variations on those traditions—Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer, John Besh, and Emeril Lagasse, among others. The Takacs family and their restaurant, Phò Tâù Bay, are not names that spring to mind, but they rank as one of my big culinary discoveries since I moved to the city in the fall of 2008.
I had been vaguely aware of a community of Vietnamese shrimpers working the Gulf, but it was a surprise to find so much authentic, high-quality Vietnamese food in New Orleans, though it does make sense—both cuisines bear a French influence and have signature dishes built around the baguette: the bánh mì and the po’boy.
According to Kathleen Carlin, a colleague of mine at Tulane who has written about the community for decades, New Orleans has a significant Vietnamese-American population, like Orange County, California; Arlington, Virginia; and Houston. But it is, compared with those places, the least assimilated, the most self-contained. This is due, in part, to the fact that when large numbers of Vietnamese started arriving in New Orleans in 1975, the economy was hot and the housing market tight. They ended up living in Section 8 housing way outside the city center, in Versailles, and later in Gretna, and other Westbank as well as New Orleans East communities. “Versailles used to be the last thing you passed before you were in the swamps on the way to Mississippi,” Carlin told me. “Just in back of beyond.”
My introduction to Asian food took place in the ceremonial palaces of New York’s Upper West Side circa the early 1970’s. My family often went to a place on 87th Street and Broadway where the waiters wore yellow waistcoats and bow ties; dinner arrived like a small city of silver domes arrayed on a huge tray. My childhood pleasure in those gleaming snow peas nestled amid pieces of beef, and in the small bowls of mustard and sweet sauce into which one dipped fried noodles before the meal, and the pupu platters and egg rolls, had a significance beyond the meal itself. They were the start of my love of Asian food. Over the years each variation rolled into America like a soloist having a moment onstage—Japanese, Thai, Korean, and, perhaps my favorite, Vietnamese, which I didn’t eat for the first time until I traveled in Vietnam in the mid 1990’s.
In Ho Chi Minh City I had been dazzled by the markets. They were opulent, chaotic, fulsome with heaping dragon fruit and lychee, the colors so delightful, the crowds so distressing. I loved the Vietnamese restaurants there also, some of them hardly more than shacks with sidewalk tables. In the train station I had my first taste of bánh mì; I was skeptical before I was won over, a process echoed when I first regarded the po’boy—it was as if Blimpie had made me suspicious of all baguette-based sandwiches. I traveled up the coast, the meals always an occasion. In Bo Dái I had a crab dish that I can still practically taste. But it was in Hoi An, a small port town near Danang, that I became a confirmed devotee of Vietnamese cuisine. Hoi An is built around water. You go most places by boat. It felt like a Vietnamese Venice. My first night, there was no electricity. The darkness was interrupted by flickering torches and candles. Perhaps it was just a function of being deprived of sight that my senses of taste and smell were heightened, but that night I remember thinking that Vietnamese food was the most delicious food in the world.
It was at Phò Tâù Bay in Gretna that I had the idea it would be fun to learn to cook Vietnamese food. Its essence is so in line with our current preoccupations, chief among them freshness, lightness, and locally grown ingredients. We go there for dinner on Wednesdays with friends who also have little kids. It’s a dramatic ride. You fly across the Mississippi at sunset, shoot along the elevated highway, and exit into the tidy, tawdry world of strip malls and ranch houses that makes up New Orleans’s Westbank. Phò Tâù Bay’s main attraction is the food, of course, but it helps that it is run by a family who always makes our menagerie feel welcome. We order goi ga and goi tom (chicken and shrimp salads), spring rolls, pho. The table is crowded with bowls erupting with herbs, sprouts, lime.
One day, walking with my daughter through the restaurant, I passed the door to the kitchen. It was open. “Look at that,” I said. She ran back to the table. I stayed to peer at the various pots and pans, the tubs of fresh produce that make every Vietnamese table into a kind of garden. I peered around looking for the nuoc mam, which is made from fermented fish (see “Taste of Vietnam,” below). There was a huge vat, almost a cauldron, sitting in the corner: surely it was where the soup stock for the pho had been concocted. How do they do it? I wondered.
It felt like I was peeking at a magician backstage. Like so many other men in America, it seems, I have discovered cooking and also the transporting effects of culinary adventure; I imagine myself a culinary explorer. But there is a fine line between exploring and trespassing. Someone in the kitchen looked up and saw me. He walked over to the door wearing an expression that I chose to interpret as a polite smile, maybe even a welcoming one, and closed it in my face.
I went up front and asked Karl Takacs Jr., the raven-haired man behind the register, if I could observe the doings in the kitchen. Karl Jr. is in charge of building up the daily pot of pho for which the place is famous. He is the third generation in his family to work at Phò Tâù Bay. And he is always very friendly. So I was surprised when he shook his head and said, “Sorry, can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I said.
“It’s nothing personal. We’ve got a lot of people asking.”
“Who else is asking?”
“Emeril,” he said. “He’s in here all the time.”
“Those guys are not going to give you their secrets!” Emeril Lagasse tells me. “There’s something in that pot, or there’s something in that vermicelli salad. There is something they’re not telling you. I have been trying to wrap my brain around it for at least ten years!”
It was the Groucho principle at work—Phò Tâù Bay’s kitchen is the club that will not have us. Not only do we like the food, but it also seemed clear, as we spoke, that we both kind of like the mystery of being shut out of its creation.
Emeril is fixated on the gigantic pot of pho at Phò Tâù Bay. He orders it every time. “When you get that taste, the depth, what Karl Sr. and Karl Jr. are doing.... I have tried to get it out of them. I have tried to duplicate it. Is it cinnamon? The way they roast the cardamom?” (It’s neither.) “And it’s a hole-in-the-wall, as you know. There is nothing fancy in this joint! It confuses people.”
Phò Tâù Bay’s story, I discover from Emeril and then from the Takacs themselves, is as intricate and shrouded as its food. They once had five Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans, but after Katrina they were reduced to the original location. This was not the family’s first setback, however. Just as the Gulf’s climate echoes that of Vietnam, so the Katrina debacle echoed earlier catastrophes. Surviving one disaster, it turns out, can be helpful when you are faced with another.
Karl Takacs Sr. is tall, broad-shouldered, and moves around the Phò Tâù Bay kitchen with a bit of a limp. He shipped out to Vietnam as a GI, where he fell in love twice—first with pho, which one could argue is Vietnam’s national dish, and then with Tuyet, the daughter of the owner of Phò Tâù Bay, which was his preferred spot in Saigon. He married Tuyet. But then it all crashed and burned with the fall of Saigon. The family moved to the United States and Tuyet’s father and sister taught Karl how to cook. The restaurant’s next iteration was a no-frills restaurant selling pho in Gretna in 1982. Thus began the start of another mini-empire, which was then wiped out by Katrina. Now the ex-GI, Tuyet, and their son are the chefs.
There are many other fantastic Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans—Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery, in New Orleans East, and Tan Dinh, in Gretna, notable among them—and I like to explore them all. The Versailles community, “in back of beyond,” is a pleasure to roam for its restaurants and markets. But recipes and demonstrations are still out of the question. So I try to get snippets of information every time I go to Phò Tâù Bay. Last time, I marched up to the register, at that moment manned by Karl Sr., with a bit of fried shallot in my palm. It’s a tiny explosion of flavor and texture, artwork in miniature.
“Tell me the story of how this came to exist,” I said.
“You get ’em precut, and you flash-fry them very fast or they burn...” and he went on for a while, pride overwhelming the secrecy.
On a few occasions I have called Karl Jr. on the phone, my shaky attempt at goi ga of in front of me, for advice. I list the ingredients I have used. Then, as if this were some Vietnamese food-crisis hotline, he suggests a few I have left out.
Another day, bantering with the Takacs, it came out that Karl Jr. had visited Vietnam once.
“What did you think of the pho?” I asked.
“I think ours is better,” he said. At first, I thought this was blasphemy. Then I realized that, at Phò Tâù Bay, the pho and all of the recipes are part of one family’s secret oral history. Those recipes are the equivalent of diamonds smuggled from the home country in the lining of a coat, the foundation on which a family’s fortunes will rise again.
Taste of Vietnam: Red Boat nuoc mam, a first-press fish sauce from the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, is made from salted black anchovies and slow-aged in tropical-wood barrels using a centuries-old artisanal process. It is now available in the United States. redboatfishsauce.com; from $10.
Thomas Beller is the author of How to Be a Man (W. W. Norton & Company). Follow him on Twitter @thomasbeller.