Before hashtags and “trending now” reports gained such currency, one way to get a read on the next big thing for the food world was to talk with chefs about what they liked to eat on their down time. In New Orleans, these discussions often led to restaurants in the Vietnamese enclaves around Gretna and Village de L’Est.
New Orleans restaurant people have long been singing the praises of Vietnamese cuisine, from the intricacies in its fresh, fermented, pickled, pungent flavors to the wide potential written across the voluminous menus of the traditional restaurants. It could only be a matter of time before that praise met the plate at their own restaurants.
The chef Michael Gulotta was one of the early adopters, and his casual, very cool new restaurant Mopho is the fullest expression to date of a contemporary New Orleans culinary perspective worked through that infatuation with Vietnamese food.
You can ease into this on the common ground of a hot sausage po-boy ($8), which cuts the greasy savor of spicy pork with the familiar clutch of banh mi garnishes (cilantro, carrot, radish). Or you can do a deeper dive on the more ambitious and elaborate specials, like silver dollar-sized clams ($18) each cupping their own slurp of pepper jelly broth with thin, fatty strands of cured lamb and with a pair of puffy beignets the size and shape of bananas provided for dipping.
Ginger and lemongrass make chicken wings ($10) irresistible (get them half-price at weekday happy hour, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.). Pickled blue cheese makes the fried oysters ($14) intensely sour. And among its many vegetarian options, this kitchen produces a one-of-a-kind eggplant dish. Blasted into a sort of sticky pudding, tasting caramelized and balsamic, it seems to melt over cubes of smoked tofu for a vermicelli noodle bowl ($9) that resembles traditional bun salads more in form than flavor.
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In a show of foodie gusto, each Saturday, Mopho has whole roasted pig, prepared overnight on the dining patio and served as platters (market price) of pork washed in a coconut milk and chili dressing, with cracklins and a changeable assortment of pickled vegetables. The idea is to wrap the meat in roti flat bread, with dashes of fish sauce and fresh herbs, though, predictably, having all that just-roasted pork on hand means it often migrates across the menu as spring rolls and other on-the-fly specials throughout the day.
A New Orleans native, Gulotta opened Mopho in January with fine dining bona fides aplenty, having spent the previous six years as chef de cuisine at John Besh’s flagship restaurant August. What he doesn’t have is any Vietnamese family heritage, which means the Mopho approach was bound to be somewhat controversial.
Mopho is hardly the only New Orleans restaurant stretching the idea of Vietnamese cuisine. Look to Ba Chi Canteen, Namese and Mint for three other top examples. But Gulotta does it in a more sweeping fashion and at a time when the standard, traditional dishes are finding a wider audience. Just as more New Orleans people were building their confidence with the cuisine, here comes someone from outside the culture to shuffle the deck. Even the cheeky name sounded like trouble. Was this all just a way to repackage what had already proved popular?
But Mopho isn’t likely to unseat your favorite family-style Vietnamese restaurant or quick-serve cafe on the pho circuit. It’s just too different to replace them. There’s more of a tavern ambiance, with the local beers and food-friendly wines to back it up, and it’s also more expensive.
So rather than sating specific cravings for the pho of your dreams, this is a restaurant where you can test how duck sausage or hog headcheese taste in the soup (answer: excellent) or even cocks comb, that barnyard exotica (answer: as gelatinous and funky as chicken feet). I liked my chicken pho better with chunks of skin-on thigh meat and mustard greens as sharp as wasabi.
All of the pho options follow a build-your-own format, which underscores an exploratory side of Mopho that cuts both ways. If people who already love traditional Vietnamese food are coming here to see where else it can go, Gulotta and his crew are in the same boat.