NEW ORLEANS -- This is a tale of two restaurants, both serving Vietnamese food under the same name and from the same owner but in different parts of town and in much different styles. The original Nine Roses was one of the early outposts for Vietnamese cooking in Gretna; its sister restaurant Nine Roses Café opened in 2015 across the river in the French Quarter.
1100 Stephens St., Gretna, 504-366-7665
620 Conti St., New Orleans, 504-324-9450
The original 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 new café is tiny by comparison, and it fits right in as a quick option in the Quarter. Situated on Exchange Alley, it has a handful of umbrella-topped tables on the pedestrian mall here, which are great for people watching when the weather cooperates.
The menu at the original Nine Roses is huge. I find something different one visit. 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.
The café menu is much shorter and more in line with the noodle house concept, which works well for quicker meals in the Quarter. A lunch stop here that starts with
The best way to use the menu at Nine Roses is to bring company and dig into a few shared dishes that take some hands-on assembly. For instance, the soups are huge and are intended to be dishes out 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 café version in the Qaurter revolves around the noodle shop standards – pho, vermicelli noodle salads, banh mi sandwiches and spring rolls. But there is also a specialty here in large, fresh, complex salads (with duck and cabbage, for instance, or shrimp with pork and many herbs dressed with fish sauce vinaigrette). The café menu also brings in a few specials from the larger main restaurant menu, which change up all the time and give a little preview of what’s possible.
Desserts are a little unusual here, in other words, par for the course for Vietnamese restaurants. Fried bananas with ice cream is the most approachable choice, though from there it gets into sweetened red beans and various tropical fruits in syrup and custard.
The Gretna restaurant stocks a few wines, though most people tend to wash down their meals with hot tea or cold beer. The French Quarter restaurant serves soft drinks only. At both, the iced coffee with condensed milk is a great call for refreshing dose of caffeine.
If you see a dish on the Gretna menu priced over $12, it’s a safe bet that dish is intended for at least two people to share. Most single-serving dishes are under $10 and even when you get a group together and share many different dishes the bill rarely exceeds $25 per person. The café menu is uniformly inexpensive, and $15 will get you a lunch that’s both filling and fresh.
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. Its expansion cafe plants a much-needed option for lighter, faster, inexpensive meals in the French Quarter.