Vietnamese Fusion in Uptown New Orleans
Chef Phát Vũ, owner of Ba Chi Canteen in uptown New Orleans, comes from a family steeped in culinary tradition — his sister is the owner of perennial West Bank favorite Tân Định Vietnamese Restaurant. With Ba Chi, he has put a unique twist on Vietnamese fare, with specialties including “Bacos,” a fusion of “ba chi,” steamed buns, and tacos. Louisiana Cultural Vistas sat down with Chef Vũ to discuss family and food.
Tell me a little bit about your family’s history. When did you leave Vietnam and how did you arrive in Louisiana?
My family escaped from Vietnam in 1979. My dad was a shrimper, and we had to leave everything there. One night, when I was around two years old, we packed up and started running through the jungles, got on a boat and left for the sea. We ended up in Malaysia. They told us that in order for us to be refugees in Malaysia, we’d have to destroy the boat, so we destroyed the boat. My father had a brother who had left for New Orleans earlier, in 1975. He got sponsors for us, and that’s how we came to New Orleans.
Was food an important part of your family life?
Growing up, food was extremely important. We used to have a family dinner every night; my mom was a stay-at-home mom raising nine kids. She would prepare five, six dishes altogether. We would have something salty, which is called “thịt kho” it’s braised pork, ribs, or pork belly. Then, there’s shrimp, that’s called “tôm rim mặn” it’s a salty shrimp — a little bit tangy, a little bit sweet. Then, there’s always some kind of soup, a mustard soup or a bitter melon soup, and pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and a big bowl of rice.
When I was young, I used to love my mom and dad’s cooking and when I grew up we were always in a business. My sister used to have a little chicken wing shop with the fried rice and all that, and I would go there and help her. I would wake up early in the morning and go out to the farmers market at four in the morning on my day off and help her make sandwiches. It’s been in our lives the whole time.
I went to culinary school in Dallas. After Katrina hit, my sister called me back to help her with Tân Định, so I stayed there until five years later when I got my own place, because I was like, “I want to do something new. I want to do something different.” That’s how Ba Chi came about.
Ba Chi means pork belly.
The good part, the best part of the pig, and everybody loves bacon, right? You can prepare it so many ways. You can cure it, you can fry it and make cracklins if you’re Cajun, or you can make a famous dish that we have, called “thịt kho tộ” which is pork belly braised in a clay pot, caramelized a little bit, with an egg on top. That’s one of the dishes we’re famous for. Everybody should know what that is.
How would you describe traditional Vietnamese cuisine to someone who has never had it?
Vietnamese food is very simple. It’s very delicate. It’s very light and refreshing. We use a lot of fresh herbs, a lot of spices. Some dishes were influenced by France, so maybe we do add a little bit of butter, but generally, the soup is very light, very clean. We combine simple flavors. We have a dish that’s called “shaken beef,” which is heavy in fat, and we have a sauce that is lime, salt, and pepper; it just brightens up the whole dish.
You mentioned cracklins. Would you say that the local fare of New Orleans or south Louisiana has influenced your cooking in any way?
There are two different sides to Ba Chi. One is more traditional — the phở, the vermicelli and the rice plate. The other side of Ba Chi, is a more creative side, where I take inspiration from other cultures and cuisine. The wheel is always turning, it’s never ending. Of course, we’re in New Orleans, so that influences our food at Ba Chi. We are thinking of doing an Etouffee ramen or a gumbo with fried rice.
What role does seafood play in Vietnamese cuisine?
Fishing and shrimping is a big part of our Asian culture. That’s like our home base. That’s what we go to, what our comfort is. In Vietnam we were close to the shore and fish was abundant to us. Here we can still go outside and throw down a net or a line and catch fish, shrimp and lobster. A lot of times, we debone, dehydrate and freeze our seafood with fish sauce, lemongrass, pepper and chillies. When the weather is too cold and you can’t go fishing, you can take it out, pan sear it and eat it with a big bowl of rice or some soup or some pickled vegetables.
What is an ideal bowl of phở for you?
Ideal bowl? An ideal bowl of phở has the richness of the broth that’s been stewed overnight. Then you have the vibrant herbs, the freshness of the basil, and the lime to give it the acidity to break down the fattiness of the meat. You have the Sriracha and the jalapeño — that’s spicy, and you have the hoisin sauce making it sweet. So, you have all kinds of flavors in one bowl that hit the palate, and every bite is different. I personally prefer the combination — the brisket, the rare flank, and meatball. Since I cook the beef, I use the bone marrow. I just take it out and dump it in my bowl. It puts a little extra fat in there and takes it to another level.
Louisiana Cultural Vistas sat down with Chef Vũ to discuss family and food.