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Food Porn: Nice buns!

"Bacos" (Vietnamese tacos) at Ba Chi Canteen

"Bacos" (Vietnamese tacos) at Ba Chi Canteen

I have to admit, even I have gotten caught up in the New Orleans obsession with Vietnamese cuisine in recent years (though it may never trump my deep and abiding love of Japanese yakitori and ramen). Citizens of the Crescent City become passionate, animated, even argumentative when it comes to a serious discussion about where to get the best bowl of pho or who makes the most satisfying banh mi sandwich, aka "The Vietnamese po-boy." Com (a rice dish) and bun (vermicelli noodles) also enter into these debates, not to mention egg rolls and spring rolls. But one menu item always seems to fall just below the radar when it comes to these sharply worded and energetic conversations:

Buns.

Sticky buns, to be precise, known in Vietnamese as banh bao. More specifically, I'd like to draw attention to what NOLA Viet food lovers and even local restaurateurs are calling "Vietnamese tacos," or even "bacos." Here's the thing: A traditional banh bao is essentially a large dumpling made from that glorious, rice flour-based sticky dough wholly encapsulating a filling, usually meat and vegetables. The alternative is an an open sticky bun, with the filling visibly poking out from the center just like, you guessed it, a taco.

In much of Asia and Polynesia, these sorts of buns are a go-to snack, a lunch staple, and even a wedding dish. If, in America, we have the sandwich, Asia has the bao, which can be prepared in a vertiginous variety of variations. It's that popular. So I'm glad it's catching on here in the Big Easy. Because, really, when you think about it, what's not to love? You have savory fillings like lemongrass chicken, Chinese sausage, marinated pork or tofu, paired with pickled vegetables and cilantro, all packed into a handy, easy-to-eat package. Plus, the texture of that wonderfully fluffy, sticky (but not too sticky) dough is incomparable to anything else in cuisine. The whole item is just so ... perfect.

More and more, the bao options in New Orleans have been growing, and thank goodness for that. The chicken and pork versions at one of my favorite uptown Vietnamese joints, Pho Cam Ly, are spot-on. But if you're looking for a little adventure between your buns (sorry, had to do it), Ba Chi Canteen (pictured above), inventor of the aforementioned "bacos," has some neat things going on, filling their little sticky tacos with everything from Korean bulgogi beef to spicy shrimp with eel sauce, honey ponzu catfish, even sweet chili soft shell crab, in addition to the basics. From experience, I can tell you that it's definitely worth exploring the options there. Further to that, a new addition to the food scene in town is Bao & Noodle, where you can get a baked version of char siu bao, a traditional dumpling filled with savory pork.

I, for one, welcome our new sticky bun overlords. And once you get a taste of that sticky dough filled with savory, spicy, pickle-y goodness, you will be, too. I mean, just look at this:

The buns at Pho Cam Ly say, "Eat me!"

The buns at Pho Cam Ly say, "Eat me!"

Hungry yet?


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.