Missing the point

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Today, I clicked over to Tom Fitzmorris’ online food newsletter to discover that he eats “ethnic” on Tuesdays and had recently visited Pho Orchid (Houma Blvd, Metairie, LA).  Here’s what Mr. Fitzmorris has to say about Vietnamese food:

Almost everything in most Vietnamese restaurants is a variation on pho. Which is not so interesting a flavor that it requires a hundred or more listings on a menu. Take out all the forms of pho, the spring rolls, and the undeniably delicious mystery-meat banh mi sandwiches (Vietnamese poor boys), and most Vietnamese restaurants are left with little on the menu. A few–Kim Son, Nine Roses, Café Minh, and now Pho Orchid–get a bunch of my stars by having much bigger and more widely varied menus. But those aren’t the ones people rave about. The simplest pho shops get all the attention.

I read an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago about the resurgence of the New Orleans restaurant scene. I was astonished by the writer’s ten best places to dine in New Orleans. In it were three Vietnamese restaurants, all of them pho and banh-mi shops. What? Did he talk with anybody here over the age of thirty, living outside the Marigny and Bywater? To read the article, you’d think pho were more important to the local eating scheme than gumbo is.

Wow…seldom have I read more uninformed dreck.  Setting aside the perjorative phrase “mystery-meat”,* we’re left with the claim that ALL Vietnamese food is a variation on pho, and the equally spurious assertion that “the simplest pho shops get all the attention.”  He claims that the three Vietnamese restaurants cited by the New York Times’ Sam Sifton were “all pho and banh-mi shops,” a factually incorrect claim….Sifton mentions Pho Tau Bay (yes, a pho-centric restaurant also serving banh mi), Dong Phuong Bakery (a BAKERY offering a wide range of pastries, meat pies, and banh mi, but adjacent to an eponymous, full-service restaurant with plenty of non-pho options), and Tan Dinh (whose menu ranges from goat curry to jellyfish salad to stir-fried chicken wings to bun bo hue and beyond).

It’s clear from the critique that Mr. Fitzmorris has very, very limited knowledge of Vietnamese food.  So why try to critique it?  (Hey, I don’t write about wine…I know when I’m out of my depth.)  He does his readers a disservice to dismiss  the food of an entire segment of our community as uninteresting or merely “variations on pho.”

Your thoughts, please?  I’d love to find out if I’m the only non-Marigny, non-Bywater-dwelling, over-30 person who thinks that Vietnamese food is some of the most exciting stuff on a plate in NOLA these days.

*What he dismisses as “mystery meats” are frequently housemade rolled ham, pate, and other handcrafted charcuterie, part of the French colonial culinary imprint onto Vietnamese cuisine.

UPDATE:  My colleague Paul G. pointed out that Lorin Gaudin already ranted about this topic a few days ago.  Read her comments here.

41 thoughts on “Missing the point

    • I’d like to think a rollicking Sunday dinner at Tan Dinh would change his perspective, but I’m not so sure….

    • I’m annoyed by his commentary, but it’s a hungry kind of annoyed….to be resolved by a goi ga or bo luc lac later today.

  1. If you should ever venture forth to Baton Rouge we also have quite a few good vietnamese places – one of the most authentic is Cafe Dang and Pho Quin (sic). We had an excellent place near LSU for years called Saigon. I miss it.

    • I like Pho Quynh, out on Florida Blvd, where the bi cuon (shredded pork skin spring rolls) are super-tasty. Shredded pork skin is chewy, a bit granular on the tongue–it looks like fine noodles, but it has a wonderful, springy texture.

      I did manage to visit Saigon a few times, but I’ve never been to Cafe Dang. Where is it?

      • Cafe Dang is in the same shopping center as Vinh Phat grocery. You must venture into Vinh Phat. You’ll feel like you are in New York. There is also supposed to be a place called Little Saigon that is good. I just haven’t been yet. I love Vietnamese food. Unfortunately most of my friends don’t feel the same way so I don’t eat it as often as I would like.

  2. Faux Pas? or Pho pas?
    Well, I had to chime in on this one.. as it is near and dear to my heart.
    Many people confuse proper critique and critical thinking with pure criticism.
    The style for many years of several critics in New Orleans,
    in both Food and the Arts, has been just that- their personal opinion of a subject-
    not criticaly and objectively discussing the subject in the present,
    much less within a cultural and / or historical context.
    The good news is that people vote with their feet…
    regardless of what Tom thinks about these and other restaurants that he and others have “reviewed” …
    Word always gets out about what excites the local palates-
    and I’d trade a local’s palate on any streetcar over a nationally syndicated palate ANYDAY!!!
    Yes- everyone needs a reality check on the nola food scene-
    Asian is not just “pho” 9th Ward hipsters, college students and
    Ramen noodle aficionados on a low budget anymore.

  3. Fitzmorris is grabbing and trying to hold on to his rapidly waning influence. The only people who listen to him now are 1) over 30 and 2) listening out of convenience. Any one serious about reading about the food in nola reads the myriad of fantastic blogs that have risen up in the past 3 or 4 years. I’m 24 and I’ve never listened to the guy in my life, and I never will. Blogs FTW.

  4. He Who Shall Not Be Named has made a career out of saying things which middle suburbia can’t disagree with. Here is another one for you:

    “Hey He Who Shall Not Be Named, I live in Houma”

    “You call that living?”

    A joke from someone who lives in Abita Springs, which I think is in Mississippi.

    • But middle suburbia is eating Vietnamese food! How else could Metairie support a restaurant like Pho Orchid? (BTW, no Asians ever seem to be eating at Pho Orchid on my visits.) Go to Hong Kong Market on a random weekday evening: people of every stripe & kind; the same is true at Dong Phuong Bakery…neither is filled with stereotypical “ethnic adventure” eaters by a long shot. The Vietnamese have been a part of south Louisiana for almost 40 years now….it’s not exactly “new” anymore. Did he miss the election of our country’s first Vietnamese American congressman or what? Hel-loooo……

      • Sorry. Didn’t mean to attack middle suburbia as a child of that region myself. What I more wanted to say is that those are his impressions of what middle suburbia wants to hear. They are not true. The same way he spouts off that no one young eats Red Beans or likes Mardi Gras. Solely because his kids do not do those things.

        I am under 30, but dont live in the Bywater or Marigny. Which incidentally are there even any Vietnamese restaurants in that area?

        • What, have school cafeterias en masse stopped serving red beans every Monday? Seems like the “young” (schoolkids) are the vanguard of tradition in this respect. It’s summer, so I can’t post public school lunch menus to support my position, but trust me, RB&R is too cheap to ever disappear from LA public school lunches!

          Wait: I found some menus online: http://www.tpsd.org/home/index.php/schools/lunch-menus
          Terrebonne Parish schools serve red beans at least once a month; of course, since this is cajun country, the kids get white beans twice as often….I’ll see what else I can dig up.

          • I know a school in the greater New Orleans area that serves red beans on WEDNESDAY instead of Monday which I think is just WRONG!!
            That is what happens when people hire good
            and well meaning people who are not from here.
            They tinker with culture and custom and dilute and change it
            so it does not have the same meaning…

            • Watch out, you’re beginning to sound like Tom: I think it’s far more important that people still eat RB&R–no matter what day they choose the dish.

              • Not to hijack comment section, but lately I think Sunday is a better day for making red beans and rice than Monday. With the advent of double working heads of household, seems to me Sunday is more likely to be the day when you “do yer wash” and other household chores. Which is the perfect time to make beans. And since red beans get better after a day or two, this allows you to eat them at their peak on either Monday or Tuesday or whenever you feel like it.

                Agree with you Celeste, it is not the day that matters, but the dish.

  5. Spot on assessment.

    “Bored” by pho is like being bored by gumbo. We all have favorite permutations, sure… but when you find yourself voicing disdain for an entire cuisine because you don’t appreciate the nuances of the many versions of a single dish of that cuisine which various establishments offer as a specialty, usually along with other representative offerings of that cuisine… well, it might be time to consider one’s own parameters, Sir.

    Not even CLOSE to a Marigny or Bywater hipster, nor 30, for that matter.

    • Well put…thanks for commenting. Guess I’m expecting too much of the guy to hope he might grasp the subtleties of the various salad plates accompanying a bowl of pho.

  6. If only we could get a decent Vietnamese or dare say it Chinese restaurant in Ascension Parish. I moved “to the burbs” almost a year ago and they have a way to go as far as oriental fare. There are Chinese restaurants on every block but no Vietnamese. The Chinese is mediocre at best. Celeste: Are there any good Chinese restaurants in Thibodaux? I’m there every weekend. Thanks.

    • Hey, I’m all for respecting tradition, but not to the point where our tongues are encased in amber. 40 years of Vietnamese influence is a long time….40 years after the peak of Italian immigration, NOLA already had widely accepted creole-italian food & restaurants.

  7. Never been a fan of Fitzmorris, who always seemed to me to have tunnel vision with limited scope outside of New Orleans native cuisine. . . . and to disrespect Tan Dinh, no less, where we used to order our favorite sauteed sticky rice cakes with lemon grass chicken. I would lump him with certain of my former coworkers who asked repeatedly, “Is Vietnamese food any different than Chinese?” Not that they had any idea of the amazing variety of either cuisine.

  8. We have quite a few Vietnamese restaurants here, although the area of greatest concentration (and likely authenticity) is far across the city from where we live so we haven’t explored all the possibilities. The first one I visited when we arrived here was Pho Bang, some sort of distant relative of the one on the West Bank, but with a more extensive menu. Several years ago I invited a coworker to accompany me there for lunch and he wrinkled his nose and said, “Vietnamese food, that’s that stinky food, right?” I encouraged him to just walk in and sniff, and if it smelled bad we would go somewhere else. It turned out to be one of his favorite lunch destinations, and he was especially impressed on the day he left his wallet at the counter and found its contents, including several $100 bills, intact a few hours later. Pho Bang closed not too long ago and has been replaced by a cleaner, brighter version with a new name that serves a good basic pho. Unfortunately, there are many that apparently use some sort of pallid mix for the broth, as pho has become more mainstream.

  9. Thank you for your reverse rants about my opinion, to which I still adhere. As I said in the piece, this is something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past few years.

    To address some of the comments: I have been to almost all of the rstaurants named in the posts, and have been eating Vietnamese food longer than I suspect most of the posters here have been alive. If you will read my words again without resorting to kneejerk rancor, you will note that I specify a few Vietnamese restaurants that I think are excellent.

    But I stand by my comment that most of them serve little more than variations on pho. Example: bun, which is essentially pho without the broth. Remove such items from most Vietnamese menus, and you’re left with very little but the banh mi sandwiches. As I noted, I’ve never had a bad one, even the ones made with mystery meat. (I am hardly the first person to call it that; I’ve seen the expression in many a fawning review of the cuisine. This is just a pretext for your carping.)

    It’s taking bold stands like this that, contrary to those who prematurely note my decline, makes my messageboard the most active local food messageboard in town. Makes the circulation of the New Orleans Menu Daily grow every day. Keeps the audience of my radio show at an all time high. And will allow me to say, “I told you this five years go” when, after the current vogue for Vietnamese food cools and you move into your thirties, people start writing posts and articles headlined, “So What’s The Big Deal About Pho?” Watch for them and remember where you read it first.

    Tastefully yours,
    Tom Fitzmorris

    • Wow–what’s up with the age fixation? I’m not exactly wet behind the ears, dude: long, long out of my 20s, as are almost all of the posters who commented on this thread. What you call a “bold stand” is perceived by many (see aforementioned comments, it’s not just me) as an uninformed opinion. Equating a cold, dry rice vermicelli dish (bun) with a broth-based soup typically consumed as a breakfast food does little to bolster your argument. Vietnamese food is outside your cultural comfort zone: you miss the subtlety and nuance, in the same way some folks can’t tell the difference between red beans seasoned with pickled meat and those seasoned with smoked sausage.

      • Tom: there are times when it is better to admit your limitations than to continue to take a “bold stand” that demonstrates your ignorance of the topic. Bun is not “pho without the broth” in any sense. The only components they really have in common are noodles (though of a different shape), herbs, bean sprouts and lime. The main components of pho – flank steak, brisket, tendon, tripe, meatballs, and in some variations chicken, are generally not seen in bun; at least not in the same form seen in Pho.

        In Bun, in addition to the herbs commonly used to garnish many Vietnamese dishes, there is usually a salad of lettuce, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon radish under the bun noodles. The meats commonly served with bun are grilled beef, pork, chicken, or shrimp, along with fried spring rolls and other items never seen in pho. There’s a garnish of chopped, roasted peanuts and a sauce called nuoc cham made with rice vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, and dried chiles.

        And saying that bun is pho without the broth discounts the importance of that broth to (most) pho. It’s a fragrant beef broth that’s unlike just about anything you’ll find in any other cuisine in the world. Further, there are other dishes at MOST Vietnamese restaurants that are similarly completely different in texture, ingredients, and flavor profile from pho.

        Also: there certainly are Vietnamese restaurants that specialize in pho, or banh mi, etc. You may be aware of certain local restaurants which specialize in “poor boy” or “hamburger” sandwiches, with similarly limited menus? Criticizing Pho Bang for having a limited menu is like criticizing Bud’s Broiler for its lack of diversity.

        I’m glad that you’ve been able to make a living writing about food in this town. It’s an impressive feat, and the result of the fact that you do generally know what you’re talking about; especially where New Orleans restaurants are concerned. I don’t think you should brag about the fact that a “bold stance” that stirs up commentary is the reason for your messageboard’s traffic. That kind of “bold stance” is how Alan Richman’s article about New Orleans became the most commented on in the history of GQ, after all.

        The bottom line is that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Tom. This, again, is one of those times you should simply admit a gap in your vast knowledge and bow out gracefully. Based on my experience with you, that’s about as likely as snow flurries in the CBD this afternoon.

        Your pal,


    • Ohh Tom, you are such a sage. Why without your support I am sure Catch would still be operating today. How is it that a restaurant which you went to, reviewed, and had an Eat Club at failed within 6 months of opening, which is your normal time frame to even step foot in a restaurant?

      I am sure 5 years from now when pho is little more than a blip on all these Young Turks’ radar screens you can sit back in your comfortable office, ensconced in the admiration of thousands of aging Baby Boomers, look out upon the Cool Water Ranch and remember when you were relevant and had your pulse on what was going on in the New Orleans culinary scene.

      The fact is Vietnamese cuisine is just as woven into the fabric of New Orleans cuisine as say German or Italian traditions. Try the pork belly at Lilette with its creamy pork dotting a salad of peppery arugula, sweet melon, mint, and fish sauce based dressing. Or Cochon Butcher’s take on a banh mi, which replaces the pate with headcheese. Vietnamese is coming for you, Tom. Gird your loins, I bet Andrea puts in on his menu soon!

  10. Celeste – you covered that quite nicely! FYI, I’m long out of my 40s. Tom can keep trying to convince us all of his stats and popularity, but I don’t believe it for a second!

  11. I’m appalled he didn’t mention Tan Dinh! Their menu is fantastic! Has he step foot on the Westbank past Stumpf (Kim Son & Nine Roses)?? He has no clue what he’d talking about when it comes to Vietnamese food. The man says “POOR Boys” for God’s sake. I wouldn’t trust a single review of his anyway.

    • As I mentioned in my first post, I have been to almost all the Vietnamese restaurants on the West Bank and everywhere else. You like Ton Dinh? Enjoy, please! I find it mediocre. The duck is the least interesting duck dish I’ve ever eaten. But I don’t think you’re crazy for going there if you like it. Is it too much for me to ask the same courtesy?

      And consider bun: add beef broth, and what do you have? Pho! EVERYTHING ELSE IS THE SAME, including the infinite variety of toppings. You may as well say that a dressed poor boy has nothing on common with one without lettuce and tomatoes.

      But the forcefulness of my words and the tremendous, expensive research that back them up (I am the only significant local restaurant critic who pays for his own meals out of his own pocket) is not to influence others. It’s to tell you what I think, and to get people to read or listen to whatever medium I employ. If that comes in the form of disagreement, then I am doing my job.

      There is no question that the vogue for eating Vietnamese food has caught on big-time, particularly with diners at the lower end of the age spectrum. It looks to me exactly the same as the rampant trend in New Orleans for sushi in the early 1990s. The exotic, arcane aspect of the cuisine triggered arguments over the tiniest points of the food. As is happening now with Vietnamese food, all sushi was viewed as magical by definition, and if you thought otherwise you were considered as being just out of it. That has died down, but the same exact conversation moved over to Vietnamese cooking. All Vietnamese is great! Tiny differences in the broth are magnified to mountainous.

      Of course, none of this applies to Vietnamese people themselves. Their food is clearly not a matter of trendiness for them. But I’ll bet not one of the people who disagree with me on this and other boards is actually Vietnamese.

      It is a mistake to suppose that I’m not “into” Vietnamese food. I have been writing about it longer than anyone else, and have eaten it in every form. Is it my favorite cuisine? No. But that’s the problem! I am being castigated because, since it’s in vogue, if it isn’t my favorite then I must be a useless old fart without taste! (Let’s note that I was not the first to inject age into this controversy.)

      The last thing I would ever do is to tell someone that they don’t really like what they think they like. But it’s interesting that the very people who object to my disagreement with their sanctification of this cuisine turn around and attempt to negate the validity of my own tastes.

      Again I tell you, within ten years this will die down and we’ll move to something else. I hope it’s Indian food, which has all the sociological appeal of Vietnamese food, but is a much richer, more satisfying, more delicious style of cooking.

      Tastefully yours,
      Tom Fitzmorris

      • I’ll give you credit for being persistent. I seriously doubt that, with a Vietnamese-American population of more than 15,000, diners in our area will “move on” to another cuisine in a decade. You’re talking about fad & fashion, and I’m thinking of long-term cultural impact. Don’t you have any Vietnamese friends & acquaintances? Vietnamese parish priests fill Catholic churches all over south Louisiana (the whole Gulf Coast, really). Vietnamese-Americans and their foods aren’t going anywhere.

        Regarding Indian food in Louisiana, I had high hopes that our first-generation Indian American governor might spur folks to be interested in his familial cuisine. Sadly, he’s been no champion of it: when asked about his favorite restaurant while on the campaign trail, the guy said “McDonald’s”….boo!

      • You brought age up first I am paraphrasing, “Did they talk to anyone over the age of 30?” Who lives outside the Marigny or Bywater?”

        Secondly, maybe we aren’t “significant restaurant critics”, but we pay for meals out of our pocket. So there goes that tenant of your argumentative house.

        Sam Sifton’s article was not about the Ten Best Restaurants in New Orleans as you have repeatedly stated over and over again. You are a master of constructing straw men arguments. Sifton came down here and visited a variety of restaurants. Granted he stayed within a fairly simple overview (retracing mostly the steps of his successor, Frank Bruni). The list accompanying the article merely noted the places he ate. Bruni story tried to capture an “angle” ; here it was the Vietnamese community’s contribution to New Orleans cuisine.

        You have also turned what is legitimate debate about the merits of a cuisine into this weird publicity stunt where there is a world out to get the crucify you. You stated “almost everything on a Vietnamese menu” is a variation on pho. This is incorrect. There are myriad reasons why you chose to say it. Maybe you don’t know what the hell you are talking about; perhaps it was just an off the cuff remark which your pride will not allow you to retract; or maybe you really do feel this way.

        As far as the first two options, whatever that is on you. But if you really feel that a Vietnamese menu is all just a variation on pho, then the criticisms leveled at you by Celeste, Lorin, Robert and others are absolutely on the mark. Let’s settle this in a civilized fashion. Invite one of us onto your celebrated radio show for a debate.

      • Well Fitzy, and I will call you that, let me go ahead and knock down one of your many totally incorrect points first off: the Vietnamese do disagree with you and many of us are quite unhappy with what you’ve said about our cuisine and in a greater sense, our culture.

        Truth be told, it seems that you’re acting pretty darn childish by covering your ears and humming over the statements of other users who, even in the kindest way, are trying to inform you about food, something that obviously hasn’t been done in a number of years. Alas, I won’t try to dissuade you from your blatantly idiotic perception of my people’s food.

        It really is a shame that you’ve gone into such a crisis mode about cuisine that isn’t New Orleans, but in truth it doesn’t bother me that much. After a recent trip to Austin and Dallas, I went to two Vietnamese restaurants in those cities. Now, the Vietnamese community there is nothing compared to that of New Orleans and Houston, but when I walked into the two pho and specialty shops, they were packed to the brim with families, workers, young people, old people, and even your abhorred hip-kids from every creed and culture. Vietnamese food has never been a faux-fad, and it’s here to stay, Fitzy.

      • I’m only 41 Tom, so I haven’t been eating anything as long as you. And I would defer to your knowledge about the ingredients to obscure items from the menu of a New Orleans restaurant that closed when I was in junior high. But when you say, “And consider bun: add beef broth, and what do you have? Pho! EVERYTHING ELSE IS THE SAME, including the infinite variety of toppings.” You just don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

        But if a world-renowned food critic such as yourself doesn’t know the difference between pho and bun (aside from the broth, which you astutely point out), then perhaps there’s some merit in one of us writing more extensively about the cuisine…

        By George, you’ve just given me an idea for a story Tom, thanks!

        • Lets do some reverse engineering. Take what is similar between pho and bun out: Noodles. Compare whats left.

          Pho, broth, bits of tendon, tripe, maybe some brisket, a meatball perhaps, mostly beef. Maybe you go with chicken. Either include or omit the basket of herbs, your choice.

          Bun: Slices of cucumber, radishes, an egg roll or two if you are smart, chargrilled pork, peanuts, fried shallots.

          Boy those seem like exactly the same dish.

  12. At any rate, Tom apparently exhibits at least a modicum of good taste and sense. He reads your blog. (P.S. Tom, I may be older than you.)

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