And now Pho something entirely different

by Mary Tutwiler

I'd like to make a case for renaming Johnston Street the Ho Chi Minh trail. I'd like to make a case for renaming Johnston Street the Ho Chi Minh trail. Wait, wait, before you grab your dusty M16 and aim it at my head, let me explain. From downtown, where I work, to a lunch destination I'd like to visit every day, it's a hazardous, 20-minute commute each way, rife with red light runners, lane jumpers and sinister left turners, down Lafayette's most dangerous highway. What would make me want to run this gauntlet?

Uncle Ho, of course, or at least the people's humble noodle soup that has emerged as the unofficial national dish of Vietnam. Pho, the beef broth rich with spices, the bowl chock-a-block full of thin-sliced rare beef, meatballs, rice noodles, mung bean sprouts, fresh basil and cilantro, a squeeze of lime, and a nice hit of hot hot hot chili sauce is the answer to both winter and a killer hangover that lasts as long as the four-day debauchery it took to get it. The pho, (pronounced ph-ua) at the Driftwood Diner, way down there on Johnston, will make you so happy and well you'll go back to work with love in your heart for all people, even your boss.

Owner Dao Bui, a native of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) moved to Lafayette in 1983, but didn't open her small restaurant until 2006. Urged on by a cousin who had a restaurant and who taught her the ropes, as well as her three daughters, Bui created a menu that's half Viet, half Louisiana. Meaning you can go for your pho, and bring a reluctant colleague along who would rather chow down on a catfish poboy. There's lots of seafood on the menu for Lenten fish dishes, a daily special, eggs and bacon breakfasts, and what I consider the mother lode - hefty springrolls loaded with fresh greens, pork, shrimp and rice noodles with a peanut sauce for dipping, Oriental-flavored grilled pork over rice and a newly added Vietnamese poboy.

Bui has gotten such a positive response she says she's getting ready to add some new Vietnamese dishes to her repertoire. Bun cha and bun thit are both noodle dishes less brothy than pho. They come with grilled meat, and the bun thit has a bottom layer of crunchy cucumber seasoned with nuoc cham, a sweet and spicy sauce made of rice vinegar, fish sauce, chilies, lime, garlic and sugar. She may also be persuaded to make green papaya salad, dressed with the bright flavors of nuoc cham, that will ruin you for all other salads.

Vietnamese cooking is one of the finest cuisines in the world and exactly right for south Louisiana. Based on the freshest seafood, lots and lots of leafy greens and fragrant herbs, grilled pork and of course rice, it is at once familiar and totally different and surprising, with the flavor of nuoc cham keeping you coming back for more. Three common elements of Vietnamese and Louisiana cuisine, French bread, beignets and cafe au lait come thanks to the French colonial period in each semi-tropical part of the world.

Another reason to thank Uncle Ho. The people's food comes at the people's prices. There's nothing more than $8 on the menu, and most dishes weigh in at under $5. Now if only we could get rid of the traffic.

The Driftwood is located at 6699 Johnston St., between Carson's Vet Clinic and Fire Station #13. Call 981-4544 to place take-out orders and for more info.