Aug. 19 2015 12:00 AM

From Nola to 'Nam


Pho-nomenal

In 1968, I hitchhiked with a girl named Kelly from East Lansing to south Lansing. It was winter, it was late, and we didn’t care. We were on a quest for the most exotic food I’d ever tasted. Something she had never tasted. We found it.

Tacos.

It’s unfair to characterize Greater Lansing back then as a culinary wasteland, but it’s fair to say that for years — nay, decades — this town has severely lacked in dining diversity.

When did it change? Someone please tell me. All I know is that the dining landscape has shifted dramatically. I never imagined a restaurant in these parts that serves both Vietnamese dishes and Cajun/Creole fare.

Yet there it is, Nola Bistro, the stylish frontispiece of an otherwise drab strip mall on Lansing’s west side. Add it to the list of new bistros and diners that seem to arise every month or two like volcanic islands from a sea of ordinary cuisine — fresh, determined, different.

“Nola,” of course, is Southern shorthand for New Orleans. At Nola Bistro, the relatively small menu splits almost 50-50 between New Orleans-style cooking and Vietnamese dishes.

I’m a sucker for food inspired by the Big Easy, so I had to try the seafood gumbo. It had the proper dose of filet powder, imparting the trademark smoky-sweet flavor. There was a generous amount of shrimp and chunks of smoked sausage. The most expensive item on the menu ($12.99), the gumbo is worth it — though I was a tad disappointed to not find any okra, usually a staple in gumbo.

Flip to the Vietnamese side of the menu for the best thing at Nola Bistro — the pho. “Phonomenal” read the servers’ t-shirts, and I agree. (I only learned in recent months that it’s pronounced “fuh.” I lead a sheltered life.)

Judy’s meatball pho ($8.50) was very good, a rich, beefy broth that reaches the table a few notches below boiling. Add cool rice noodles, fresh cilantro and bean sprouts, and you have an entire meal. A cultural quibble: This is the second Vietnamese restaurant I’ve visited that describes a pho with “meatballs.” The term “meatball” appears theoretical. These are actually disc-shaped meat slices that, presumably, were once fully formed as a meat ball.

An even a better version is the Rare Steak Pho($8.50). On a second visit, our group ordered takeout. My colleague, Victoria, is wellacquainted with pho.

“When cooked incorrectly pho can be watery and lack flavor,” she said. “But the rare steak pho from Nola Bistro had a dimensional flavor easily comparable to or better than others.”

What sets this pho apart are thin slices of steak that are served, as implied, virtually raw. Plunge them into the broth, and they cook in seconds. Excellent.

On two trips to Nola Bistro, we sampled six dishes, appetizers and sandwiches, and a dessert. In descending order, here’s how I rank some of them:

For dessert, we shared an order of beignets ($5.99), those amazing powdered sugardusted fried pastries immortalized by Caf Du Monde in New Orleans. No one makes these better than Caf Du Monde, but Nola makes a valiant attempt.

Next up, the banh mi and shrimp po’boy. The best part of these sandwiches is the baguettes they are served on. This bread provides the combination of crunch and chew that sets true French bread apart from all others. I ordered the Banh Mi ($3.95) with cold roast pork. The overall taste was a delight, with fresh cucumbers and cilantro playing off a slightly spicy mayonnaise.

The pork was a bit of a mystery. It tasted fine, but its look and feel was decidedly un-pork-like. My first thought was that maybe it had been grown in a test tube. Its texture was somewhere between foam and grits.

The po’boy ($8.99) was served on the same good baguette, with fried shrimp dusted in corn meal. I give it a C-plus.

The char-grilled chicken plate ($8.95) features a smallish piece of chicken, juicy inside and with a slightly sweet, crisped exterior.

My colleague, Justin, had the Nola hot sausage po’boy ($8.75). I agree with his assessment: The remoulade reminded him of a “chipotle mayo-esque sauce” that added a needed zing, compensating for a dry, somewhat bland sausage.

Speaking of sauces, Nola Bistro seems to excel in well-crafted dipping sauces. The peanut sauce, especially, is worth the cost of the pork dumpling appetizer ($5.50).

Nola Bistro has only been open a few months. I applaud the friendly, attentive service, the focus on fresh vegetables and the restaurant’s clean, minimalist interior. I hope it will expand its menu. If and when it does, I hope the baguettes will be employed in new and tasty ways.

Signature soups shine

Vietnamese food alongside Cajun food? What gives?

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of spending any measureable amount of time in New Orleans, let me give you a quick explanation. There are a lot of Vietnamese people in Louisiana, and the two food cultures have become intertwined. Both cuisines feature a signature soup heavily laden with aromatics and a starch — Vietnamese pho and Cajun gumbo — so maybe the similarities do outweigh the differences.

On our very first visit to Nola Bistro, the fiancé and I were befuddled by the menu. Roughly half of the items were marked with an “x,” which, contrary to our logic, meant that they were offering those items. The other half of the items, the ones that weren’t marked, were not available that day. Thankfully, by our next visit, this extremely confusing menu scheme had been scrapped, and everything on the menu was available.

I’m not sure if it is the policy at Nola Bistro for the servers to remain anonymous or if it’s just a quirk with the waitress we had on multiple visits, but we never heard our server introduce herself. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that on many occasions we wanted to make a personal plea to her to refill our long-empty water glasses — something that she seemed determined to actively overlook as she ignored the empty glasses, pointedly positioned on the very edge of our table.

We started our first meal with the Vietnamese egg rolls (four for $5.50). I prefer the spring roll variety — especially during the summertime, because the rice paper is lighter and they’re more refreshing — but the fiancé loves egg rolls, and dinnertime, especially within the bounds of a relationship, is about compromise. The egg rolls were overcooked, a fact that I won’t let him forget until at least our 10-year anniversary.

I had the rare steak pho ($8.50), because why would I not want to eat a giant, steaming bowl of noodle soup in the middle of July? If you’re intimidated by pho, you don’t need to be. First of all, learn how to pronounce the word. Say “fuh,” like fun without the “n.” Next, they’re going to bring you a big plate piled with basil leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, lime, and various sauces. This is where you can get crazy and just do what you feel. Do you want your head to explode? Throw in the raw jalapeno slices! I like my pho basically straight up, but with a little basil added for the fragrance and a few bean sprouts for crunch.

The fiancé had the seafood gumbo ($12.99), which he loved. It’s spicy, but not too hot, he said, and features not only seafood, but also sausage. The tomato-based broth was rich, and the two scoops of white rice on top soaked it up, thickening the stew. This hearty gumbo could be a meal and a half for most eaters.

On our next visit, the two of us split a grilled pork banh mi ($3.95), a traditional Vietnamese sandwich on a crusty roll. I had more pho. When I find something that I like, I become obsessed with it and want to eat it every day. (Just ask Fresh Thyme where all of its bulk chocolate hazelnut granola has been going.) He had the crawfish etouffe ($12.99), which he didn’t like as much as the gumbo.

Toward the end of the meal, things took a strange turn. The nameless waitress approached our table and asked, in the most inappropriately lascivious tone possible, “Do you guys want to try our beignets?” Just read that question aloud in your sexiest voice possible. And then imagine a waitress asking it. It was a Wednesday night, and it was weird.

We did try the beignets though, so I guess her bizarre tactic worked. We got a half order of the deep-fried doughnuts ($3), which we had to choke down. They were extremely dry and, of course, we were out of water.

On our most recent visit, it was po’boy night. I had the hot sausage variety ($8.75) and he had the shrimp ($8.99). Both sandwiches came with French fries, which were completely unseasoned and bland. My sandwich had spicy sausage patties on a toasted baguette, spread with remoulade sauce. If you’re not familiar with remoulade, imagine a spicy, garlicky mayonnaise — and imagine getting some for home because you don’t know what you’re missing.

The shrimp po’boy was heavy on the iceberg lettuce, but shrimp didn’t figure as prominently. The bread, fried shrimp, and French fries make for a monochromatic plate. I’d love to see something green, even as a garnish. A sprig of fresh herb can go a long way on differentiating a classy restaurant plate from a last-minute dinner at the kitchen table.