New Orleans is home to the kind of Vietnamese food that inspires daydreams: from the pho tai at Pho Tau Bay in Mid-City, to the lemongrass ribs at Tan Dinh in Gretna, to pretty much everything in the bakery at the James Beard Award-winning Dong Phuong in New Orleans East. For many people, though, it’s Trinh “Lilly” Vuong’s eponymous restaurant, Lilly’s Cafe, in the Lower Garden District — with its cozy, unassuming space that seems to always be filled with regulars — that has become the epitome of Vietnamese comfort food in the city.
“Before my parents married, my father was a French chef for a French doctor in Vietnam in the 1960s,” says Vuong of her French-Viet cooking lineage. “After that, he worked at a French restaurant in Vietnam. My father had a talent in cooking. The way that he cooked was very unique, very special, and the food was very, very excellent. So I kind of think I get it from my father!”
Soon, though, Vuong and her father fled the country as part of a large group of refugees who left Vietnam by boat and ship following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. They landed first in Indonesia in 1980, then found American sponsors in Falls Church, Virginia and New Orleans before migrating to the Northeast.
“After the Vietnam War, my father [and I] escaped from Vietnam. We lost everything. He left literally everything behind: Even my mom didn’t come with us on the boat. She stayed behind, and then my father sponsored my mother after two years. When we got to America, he had to do this, he had to do that — he had to do everything! My father worked very hard to provide for us and he worked many, many jobs. He could build a house for you, fix a car for you, he could do anything. But he didn’t follow through with restaurants [in America] with his background — I don’t know why.”
Vuong’s father passed away in 1999 in Massachusetts, and she returned to Louisiana. (“I had family here — aunts and uncles. It’s going back to your roots; going back to your family; going home,” she explains.) Lilly began working at an aunt’s nail salon in Mandeville, eventually moving to a salon on Magazine Street. All the while, though, her thoughts were in the kitchen.
“So, I’m doing nails, but in my mind and my heart I’m thinking that I want to work with Vietnamese food. It’s a tribute to my father, because you know, food was in him. Cooking was in him, and so I get it from my dad. I’m telling my customers, ‘That’s my dream. I would like to have my own restaurant.’” She would even bring in homemade Vietnamese dishes for her customers to try — spring rolls, banh mi — that were met with rave reviews.
And in 2012, Lilly’s Café opened on Magazine Street as a Vietnamese food pioneer in the Lower Garden District, rapidly attracting attention from hungry diners across town while simultaneously becoming a linchpin restaurant for the neighborhood. Today, Lilly’s operation continues to be a true family affair: Her brother and mother both work front-of-house, her husband serves as chef, and Lilly’s aunt and sister-in-law pitch in on occasion. Vuong also points to the community itself as a key part of the restaurant’s success.
“I couldn’t do it without everybody — they’re all so great. We have a wonderful neighborhood,” she says.
When asked to pick a signature dish, Vuong refuses to point to a personal favorite, but knows which one customers seem to adore: spicy tofu.
“Spicy tofu is unique. All the chefs come to have the spicy tofu, so that’s our trademark dish,” she laughs. “Pho, of course, is essential, and our pho is vey different from other places. But I think the spicy tofu is the first choice that people come and try. Even Tom Colicchio from Top Chef came by, ate the spicy tofu, then came back two more times just for that!”
The heart and determination behind Lilly’s Café is nothing short of extraordinary, and a testament to how, through honoring a family culinary tradition, a person can help create new memories and legacies of their own for generations to come.
“I think my dad would be very proud. There were two siblings: my brother and me. My brother’s like my mom, and I’m very similar to my dad, so I think he would be proud. I thank God and thank my family. This is all for my dad, you know?”