Husband and wife duo Minh Bui (left) and Cynthia Vu Tran in the kitchen of their restaurant, Cafe Minh.

This Vietnamese Restaurant in New Orleans Makes Fusion Look Good

Cafe Minh's success proves Vietnamese food is Southern food, y’all—here's what to order

Husband and wife duo Minh Bui (left) and Cynthia Vu Tran in the kitchen of their restaurant, Cafe Minh.

Thuc Nguyen

Words and photos by Thuc Nguyen

New Orleans is obviously known for its plethora of Vietnamese food—from hole-in-the wall pho spots to fine dining seafood restaurants—dating back to the wave of Vietnamese refugees who came over in the early 1980s, finding a home near the water and a climate that resembles that of their home country, with an abundance of similar plant life and seafood. New Oreleanians caught on, including Vietnamese breads, sauces, appetizers, and coffee into more traditionally Southern restaurant menus, to the point that it’s hard to tell who is influencing whom.

Cafe Minh.

Thuc Nguyen

But Cafe Minh, an unassuming spot in the Mid-City area, stands apart. It’s Vietnamese fusion made by a Vietnamese couple.

Laughing together in the kitchen are the wife-and-husband team of chefs Cynthia Vu Tran and Minh Bui. There are no prep or sous chefs, just this pair of Vietnamese refugees who met in the restaurant industry and fell in love. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tran came into Bui’s first restaurant called Lemon Grass in 1997 to apply for a job. He says, “A year after I opened, Cynthia came by. We talked and talked and then she never left.” Cafe Minh has been open for more than 12 years now, surviving the pandemic by making food that sold at local grocery stores, delivering food for immuno-compromised people who couldn’t leave their homes, and providing family-sized pans of comfort food for customers to take home.

Tran and Bui are no strangers to tough times. Bui came to America in 1981 when he was 20 years old, directly to a small town right outside of New Orleans. Tran came over as a 7-year-old, and her family settled into New Orleans East. They both draw inspiration for Cafe Minh’s menu from food they ate as children in Vietnam. 

This pair of chefs had totally different paths that brought them together in the food world. She won a gold medal in a cooking contest, which earned her a scholarship to a prestigious culinary institute up north, where Emeril Legasse also attended. Bui, a self-taught chef who worked his way up from dishwasher, ended up working with Legasse at the revered Commander’s Palace for half a decade.

“A year after I opened, Cynthia came by. We talked and talked and then she never left.”

Cynthia Vu Tran and Minh Bui share a laugh together in the kitchen of Cafe Minh.

Thuc Nguyen

The duo has built Cafe Minh as a true partnership, developing recipes together, developing menus that change seasonally. He says, “We just understand each other’s recipes. We just look at each other [and get it].” Later in the kitchen, Tran tells me, “We love what we do. It’s tough to find a husband and wife team who do what we do.” She jokes and says, “sometimes I have to take out the knives and show who’s boss!”

Fusion regularly carries a negative connotation in the day and age of rampant cultural appropriation, but Bui credits their passion and hunger to push the boundaries of Vietnamese food as to why they’ve developed Cafe Minh as a fusion restaurant, where the menu is as likely to have tempura-fried frog legs with homemade tomato sauce as it is to have traditional fried tofu with tomato sauce. An enthusiastic fisherman, Bui has been researching more local fish and seafood options, and catching what he can himself. He talks about using ingredients and wine pairings that aren’t discussed in traditional Vietnamese food—truffles for example. “People make the effort to get dressed up, get in the car and drive here, and that makes us want to create something worthy of them taking the time [to come eat with us],” he says. “We want to reach further than what we know and grew up on. We want things to taste good and also look really good.”

Minh Bui pours wine to pair with two of his dishes at Cafe Minh.

Thuc Nguyen

“People make the effort to get dressed up, get in the car and drive here, and that makes us want to create something worthy of them taking the time [to come eat with us].”

Without the boundaries of commonly known Vietnamese food holding them back, Bui and Tran combine familiar Southern delicacies with markers of Vietnamese cuisine like the flavors of fresh Vietnamese herbs, seasonings and sauces.

If you’re in New Orleans this summer, here are some of their ideas of what you should try:


Cafe Minh’s crab-meat-and-watermelon-tini.

Thuc Nguyen

This cool delight, served in a big martini glass, packs a wallop of taste, with refreshing ceviche vibes served alongside crunchy Vietnamese shrimp chips for dipping. It’s also a popular choice for the Instagram-worthy presentation. 

Seafood-stuffed Artichoke

Cafe Minh’s seafood-stuffed artichoke.

Thuc Nguyen

Bui and Tran take an oversized artichoke and stuff it with locally caught shrimp, crawfish, crab, and scallops, all served over a garlic cream sauce so good you’ll want to drink it out of a mug.

It’s a combination of Southern aromas and chopped seafood a la dishes like Vietnamese stuffed bittermelon soup.

Nut-crusted Crab

Cafe Minh’s nut-crusted crab.

Thuc Nguyen

This soft-shell crab is deep fried in a secret batter blend with a bit of a kick to it (imagine a bánh xèo, or Vietnamese crepe, kind of batter). It’s surrounded by perfectly blanched local bok choy and delicate fried plantain slices. 

A sweet chili coulis, similar to nước chấm, creates the perfect dipping sauce.

Slow Braised Short Ribs With Asian Slaw

Cafe Minh’s slow braised short ribs with asian slaw.

Thuc Nguyen

Ribs and slaw are Southern food standards, but Cafe Minh puts an Asian twist on this classic combination thanks to Asian herb blends like five spice (cinnamon, fennel, star anise, cloves and peppercorn), commonly used in Chinese, Hawaiian, and Vietnamese meat dishes to give it flavor beyond other local pork roasts.

The slaw’s made of zucchini, yellow squash, purple cabbage, and bean sprouts—a crunch accompaniment to the richness of the meat

Grilled Veal Chop with Grilled Vegetables

Cafe Minh’s grilled veal chop with grilled vegetables.

Thuc Nguyen

Herb butter (made with Vietnamese herbs and spices with a pho aroma) is the magic ingredient to thank for the success of this meal, which takes meat and vegetables to another level.

Sumptuous seasonal vegetables like cauliflower, bok choy, zucchini, and carrots create a nutritious bed for a tender grilled veal chop.

Vietnamese food is Southern food, y’all. And don’t you forget it.

* Even though Tran and Bui and I speak English, we did this in-person chat in Vietnamese and then I translated it all back to English!

Published on October 23, 2022

Words and photos by Thuc Nguyen

Thuc Doan Nguyen is a former child boat person refugee who was sponsored to the small town of Kinston, North Carolina. She grew up there, in Raleigh, NC and in rural Southern Maryland. She’s lived in Europe and has an Irish passport, as well as an American one. Thuc is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. She's a writer and essayist for publications like Vogue, Esquire, The Daily Beast, VICE, Refinery29, Southern Living, PBS and now JoySauce, among others. She loves dogs and college basketball. You can find out more about her work at