Ba Chi Canteen
7900 Maple St., New Orleans
Three Stars (out of four) _______________________________________________________________________
Vietnamese food has spread fast around New Orleans, with new restaurants cropping all the time. Many of them share a fairly traditional menu of soups, noodle dishes and spring rolls. But Ba Chi Canteen has ventured far off that template, with fascinating, often delicious results.
The restaurant space, formerly the on-again, off-again Italian spot Figaro’s, has a relatively small dining room that transitions into a covered patio. Since its transformation to Ba Chi it’s been pretty bustling, especially with budget-minded college students and curious neighbors. There are a few picnic tables outside for outdoor dining. It’s very casual throughout.
The staff know the menu well and can make good recommendations, which is important for people just beginning to explore Vietnamese cuisine and for anyone sampling the creative house specials. Ordering here isn’t as simple as just getting your old favorite dish. The kitchen turns these out reasonably fast.
Ba Chi starts with a selection of traditional Vietnamese dishes, so you can get your fresh spring rolls or fried egg rolls here. These are first rate, but there’s so much more to try that is particular to its kitchen. One of my personal must-haves here is the curried beef stew, served piping hot on a metal brazier with a side plate of buttery, dense roti bread (like a cross between pita and pastry) to dredge through the aromatic gravy. The “gyoza nacho” is sort of like a pan-Asian nacho treatment of Japanese dumplings, the garlic butter chicken wings are highly recommended, as is a basket of fries loaded with Korean-style kimchee.
Again, you can get your pho here, or your bun noodle salad or your banh mi “Vietnamese po-boys.” These do not disappoint. But the reason I especially like this place is the way the kitchen comes up with creative specialties that are all its own.
That starts with a long list of steamed buns, or banh bao, that they’re calling “bacos,” a pun on tacos. They’re about $3 or $4 each and come filled with everything from curry chicken and teriyaki shrimp to Korean style steak and pork belly (the restaurant’s name means pork belly, and the stuff is everywhere across the menu). Quite often the most interesting dishes appear on the specials board. I’ve had a panko-crusted mound of pork fried rice, broiled mussels topped with kimchee and spare ribs over papaya salad. Vegetarians will find plenty to pick here as well.
Vietnamese restaurants are rarely notable for desserts, and this place is no exception. Still, they do make a “baco” ice cream sandwich with caramel sauce and toasted coconut.
Ba Chi is BYOB, and serves strong Vietnamese style coffee, lime sodas and a range of slushy drinks with tapioca pearls.
This restaurant is a good bargain. Most dishes are below $10, and you can sample a number of dishes for $3 to $4 each. The BYOB policy helps keep things that way on the final bill.
As New Orleans diners begin to get better acquainted with traditional Vietnamese food, here’s a spot that is grounded by the traditional flavors but isn’t afraid to branch out and get creative. The result is always interesting and usually excellent. It’s a reliably fun, casual, easy dining experience in any event.