Magasin Cafe tailors its version of Vietnamese favorites to its Magazine Street location.
In a food city like New Orleans, a restaurant is doing something right if people will wait around outside to get in. I don't always value the things that make some wait-outside venues popular, but I respect that they do something well enough to motivate people to put up with summer outside to get a meal. Magasin Cafe, the Vietnamese restaurant on Magazine Street at Milan, is not the most authentic Vietnamese on Magazine, or - to be more precise - it's not the one closest to the food and experience we associate with authenticity after going to West Bank Vietnamese restaurants. That honor goes to Lilly's Cafe, but Magasin Cafe is more distinctive.
Magasin Cafe is tailored to its Uptown location. Instead of offering some version of Gretna or Marrero homey, it goes for a sleeker look - a few pieces of contemporary art on the walls, clear glass hanging lamps, and correspondingly lighter dishes. Grilled elements are prepared in plain sight behind the counter which creates a sense of intimacy instead of mystery, and the plates are all handsome as a matter of policy. I wish those traits produced more dynamic spring rolls and a more memorable banh mi, but they unquestionably add to the experience.
Fortunately, my pho with rare steak was exactly what the room design predicted: a smartly perfumed soup with a gentle touch. The broth is more than just a medium waiting for basil, jalapenos and sriracha to give it life, but it has some subtlety. Mine played well with the rice noodles and steak without overpowering them or taking a back seat to them.
Similarly, bun is closer to a salad built on a bed of rice noodles than a noodle dish with lettuce, cucumber and bits of grilled meat mixed in. I generally go easy on the nuoc cham sauce, finding it too sweet, but like the pho, the nuoc cham sauce has a well-balanced flavor that avoids any cloying aftertaste.
When I feel snarky, I think of Magasin Cafe as the perfect place for people who want ethnic food without all the ethnicity, but I eat there, I don't feel snarky. The contemporary takes on Vietnamese staples are smart and delicious.