1100 Stephens St
Gretna, LA 70053
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Vietnamese food is more popular than ever now in New Orleans, but it wasn't so long ago that this was an unfamiliar cuisine for most residents outside of the Vietnamese community itself. That's why the early Vietnamese restaurants here tended to combine traditional dishes with more generally familiar Chinese menus, with standards like lemon chicken and egg drop soup. Nine Roses was one of these pioneers, and today its clientele is roughly split between Vietnamese people plowing into huge soups and whole fish, and others either experimenting with this fascinating cuisine or playing it safe with the American-style Chinese dishes.
This is a large restaurant with a single, very long dining room divided roughly in half by a fish tank. There's nice, fairly-standard Chinese and Vietnamese décor, and each table is set with an array of sauces to use throughout the meal. Go with enough people (say, five of more) and you can usually score one of the large, round tables with its own lazy Susan at the center, perfect for sharing large platters of food and bowls of soup with your group.
The wait staff is extremely speedy, especially considering how large a dining room they must cover and how often a single, traditional Vietnamese dish requires them to bring multiple plates, bowls and apparatus to the table. The place functions smoothly, but the problem comes when you try to get much information about dishes on the huge menu. The list goes on for pages and pages, offering minimal and sometimes mystifying descriptions for the dishes. It's written for people already well-versed in the traditional cuisine, and the staff doesn't shine much light on things. Nine Roses is a great place to learn about Vietnamese food, but just be aware that these will be largely self-guided lessons.
Every time I visit Nine Roses I find something I've never tried before. It's not that the menu changes, it's simply that big. Rice paper spring rolls are the go-to order at Vietnamese restaurants, but branch out a little and you'll find dishes like large, green-lipped mussels charbroiled in their shells with green onion butter sauce or ground shrimp, highly seasoned, molded around sugarcane spears and broiled to salty sweetness.
You can get the standard Chinese dishes here, from egg foo young to sweet and sour pork, but again the real charm of Nine Roses is found on its wide-ranging roster of traditional Vietnamese dishes. A catfish hot pot is a large serving of catfish steaks baked with a thick brown sauce and garnished with tiny pork cracklins. Jellyfish, cooked down to little ribbons, are a crunchy, marine-flavored garnish on a meaty, fresh-tasting "summer delight salad" of sliced shrimp, cold, roasted pork, carrots and celery in a sweet, spicy vinaigrette. Soups are huge and are intended to be shared around the table. The canh cai be xanh has a clear, light broth loaded with fresh mustard greens or Vietnamese spinach and meatballs that are made from ground shrimp and ground pork. The hot and sour soup is more complex and combines tomato, pineapple, okra and celery plus shrimp, catfish or chicken. There are a number of dishes that require preparation at the table, which makes a fun exercise in do-it-yourself dinner. Order the bo nuong vi, for instance, and the waitress brings a plate of raw, marinated beef and knobs of butter, followed by a small, self-contained grill on which you cook it all up. You grill a few slices of meat, roll them up with fresh herbs and pickled vegetables, dribble on the sauces and encase them in rice paper wrappers. The bo nhung dam calls for a similar approach, but this time involves a pot of bubbling rice vinegar in which you cook the raw beef fondue style.
The Vietnamese menu is not much on sweets, but the rich, strong Vietnamese coffee prepared with condensed milk is a great finish.
The restaurant stocks a few wines, though most people tend to wash down their meals with hot tea or cold beer.
If you see a dish on this menu priced over $10, it's a safe bet that dish is intended for at least two people to share. Most single-serving dishes are under $8 and even when you get a group together and share many different dishes the bill rarely exceeds $20 per person.
We have a lot more options for exploring Vietnamese cuisine now than when Nine Roses first opened, but this veteran of the local dining scene remains one of the best places in town to experience its range. Impeccably fresh greens and herbs, traditional flavors, bargain prices and boundless options make this a captivating restaurant. As long as you're comfortable finding your own way around its twists and turns, it should deliver an immensely enjoyable meal.