1705 Lafayette Street
Gretna, LA 70053
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Pho is practically the national dish of Vietnam, the comfort food that speaks of home to native Vietnamese eaters with its deep, aromatic beef broth, its light rice noodles, its sheets and chunks of meat and its garden of fresh vegetable condiments stirred in at the table. Once you get a taste for pho, it's hard to order anything else when visiting a restaurant that specializes in the soup. Tan Dinh is one such specialist, but it also has so many other great dishes that the menu outright begs to be explored.
This is one of the nicer looking casual Vietnamese restaurants in town. Where some are as plain as cafeterias, Tan Dinh has actual décor (paintings of Parisian street scenes and Asian landscapes, walls scones filled with flowers), though it is still mainly just a bright, clean, large room with lots of glossy tables. Lunch is quite busy with a diverse crowd, though the restaurant can feel a little lonely at dinnertime.
It always helps to know what you're ordering at a Vietnamese restaurant, lest someone with food texture issues winds up with a bowl of tripe and tendon soup. Fortunately, Tan Dinh is the kind of place that attracts both native-speaking Vietnamese and curious newcomers to the cuisine, and the staff is pretty good at making recommendations from the vast menu. There is table service, but you bring your check to the register to pay at the end.
The default first course at so many Vietnamese restaurants are the goi cuon, or spring rolls of rice noodle, shrimp and pork bound up in fresh, rice paper wrappers. The example at Tan Dinh is excellent, but there is a lot else here to try. For instance, look for frog legs in a broth of coconut curry or the incomparable chicken wings. These transcend the typical barroom version with a garlic-butter sauce you'll want to suck from each wing first.
Many people come here expressly for pho, which is a meal in itself and comes in so many varieties. Pho tai is the standard, and safest, order for beef noodle soup. The thin slices of beef are rosy-raw when the bowl arrives, but you can practically watch them finish cooking in the hot broth before your eyes. Remember that it's up to you to season your pho with all the sauces, herbs, peppers and sprouts brought with the soup.
Salt-baked shrimp is the closest this restaurant might come to familiar fried Louisiana seafood, but this particular dish is curiously lacking flavor and is not recommended. Dishes like rotisserie-cooked quail and lemongrass chicken are much better, with crisp skin, juicy meat and tasty accompaniments, like sweet, fried sticky rice cakes. The hot pots are big, family-style bowls of curried broth and bone-in catfish steaks, and another specialty here are goat dishes, often also served as family-sized stews.
If I can get past the pho, the second biggest temptation is a plate of beef short ribs, which are slow-cooked for a dark, crusty exterior and cut into thin, chewy strips. I like to get these with cakes of pressed rice noodle, or vermicelli. The same noodles in loose, pile form are the basis for a range of dishes called bun, which feature whatever type of meat you want.
At Tan Dinh, as at a lot of other authentic spots, the dessert selection is an otherworldly collection of gelatin cups with sweetened red beans, sprouts and other unidentified shapes suspended in their jiggling mass. They don't taste as weird as they look, and most are just sort of a mellow, cooling, gummy-type of flavor, but I prefer to let the savory tastes of the meal linger and skip these desserts altogether.
Vietnamese restaurants have their own distinctive drinks, like the super-strong iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk and a refreshing and light mix of club soda, lime and sugar that you stir together yourself. The other big thing here is a long list of bubble teas, which are frozen, slushy drinks sucked through oversized straws. They come in flavors ranging from coffee to avocado, which is like drinking guacamole. Tan Dinh also serves beer and wine.
This is a bargain restaurant, especially for the amount of fresh tastes and culinary adventure a meal can pack. Few entrees range above the low teens, and the dishes that look expensive are generally intended to be shared family-style. A couple can have a ball here for about $35.
There are probably native-born Vietnamese people out there who can look at the menu at Tan Dinh and consider it old hat. I simply can't imagine what that's like. To me, this restaurant has endless possibilities for discovering new flavors and combinations. The only problem is prying myself away from the dishes I already know I love here.