Vietnamese Comfort Food
By Danny Garrett
Comfort food is difficult to come by when eating out. In Louisiana, as in many other locales, the culinary classification is most associated with home-cooked meals made and prepared by close family members. It’s your grandma’s gumbo, your mom’s beef’s stew or your dad’s barbecue.
There’s a theme to these meals. They’re warming, filling and slowly cooked. They’re also evocative of the familiar. It’s difficult to separate comfort foods from the kitchens they’re prepared in and the cooks who prepare them.
Think of your grandma’s gumbo. You’ll realize that you have a special ability to specifically imagine the matriarch of the family hunched over a steaming tin pot of roux, chicken, sausage and the Cajun trinity of seasonings. I bet you can even smell the roux sifting through her humble abode.
It’s rare to replicate these experiences inside a restaurant, because the place will need to have the comfort food in the first place, coupled with comforting aesthetics and a familiar relationship with the chef or chefs.
If you have lived in Southwest Louisiana for a considerable period of time, I’m sure you’ve found those restaurants for gumbo, soul food and similar southern fare. You may have found the same for your favorite ethnic foods, too.
In terms of Vietnamese, you should look no further than La Pho, our new Vietnamese restaurant that specializes in the Vietnamese comfort dish pho (pronounced fuh).
Undoubtedly, the dish is warming, filling and slow-cooked. Generally, pho is a Vietnamese soup that comes with rice noodles, herbs and a meat of choice in a slow-simmered chicken or beef broth. Pho is often associated with ramen. Although they have their similarities — a quick glance at both meals would afford a view of steaming broth, noodles, meat and vegetables — they’re largely distinct dishes.
The low-hanging fruit: ramen is Japanese; pho is Vietnamese. More specifically, however, ramen noodles are made of wheat, whereas pho noodles are not. For ramen, the broth is darker, cloudier and richer, often derived from a high boil of pork bone and the like. Pho’s broth is clearer and more aromatic, made from beef, star anise, cinnamon, mirepoix and ginger — with preference to the simmer rather than the boil.
There’s French influence in this culinary delight — as evidenced in the mirepoix and beef base. Simon Vo, one of the co-owners at La Pho, mentioned as much in our conversation about pho and many Vietnamese foods in general.
Vietnam was once a colony of France in parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, which created the crossovers in culture. The influence is represented in La Pho’s menu. The new restaurant has plenty of banh mi, a French baguette sandwich, to choose from. The types range from honey glazed chicken and angus beef to BBQ pork and 8-spice tofu banh mi. According to their menu, all banh mi include a “spread with butter mayo and pate stuffed with carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeno.”
For many, banh mi is a comfort food, but for the larger majority, pho is the ultimate comfort food. Every time I visit La Pho, the pho is the centerpiece of the table, with beansprouts, lime, jalapeño and herbs as additions.
Pho de luxe, pho tai, pho ga … you have more than a few versions to choose from. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, La Pho can also make a meatless pho, but, according to Vo, be sure to tell an employee that you’d like vegetarian or vegan broth, along with the vegetables in your pho. Otherwise, it might be assumed that you’re ok with a beef broth as a base.
It’s difficult to beat the culinary experience of eating pho. The noodles are warm and soft. The meat and vegetables are filling, and the broth is soothing and packed with flavor.
Furthermore, it’s doubly comforting to be surrounded by the relaxing La Pho atmosphere. Many of their countertops are of a smooth granite. Documentaries that feature hallmarks of South Asian culture, including architecture and cuisine, show from their flat screen TVs. And there’s always beautiful art featured on the restaurant’s blackboard. At present, it’s an artistic representation of a beautiful tree in bloom, blossoming red and yellow foliage, with Vietnamese, penned in red and yellow lettering, surrounding the board. The art welcomes the new year, a time of new beginnings.
It’s certainly a new beginning for Lake Charles. La Pho is a representation of a new Lake Charles, where it seems, almost every month or so, there is a new restaurant to expand residents’ palates.
La Pho is located on 1756 W. Prien Lake in the Prien Lake Plaza.