By Julian Brunt
Biloxi has had a vibrant Vietnamese community since the late 1970s. It was first centered in the Point Cadet area, the eastern tip of the Biloxi peninsula, the heart of the old seafood district. Hurricane Katrina displaced many families and businesses, but still many families and businesses remain, although dispersed around Harrison County. The largest Asian market in the state, the Lee International Market is located on Howard Avenue in Biloxi, there is still a scattering of good Vietnamese restaurants in Biloxi, Ocean Springs and D’Iberville, and there are several Buddhist and Catholic churches to be found as well.
For several years Jia, the Asian themed restaurant at the Beau Rivage Casino and Resort, has been popular in the Vietnamese community and visitors from as well, but this well-known restaurant has just undergone an extensive remodel and enlargement and is gaining a reputation as the most popular Vietnamese restaurant in south Mississippi.
The remodel opened the front of the restaurant, removing the bamboo wall and walk-through fountain, giving an open and airy feeling and adding additional seating. Perhaps the most important addition is the noodle bar, located just adjacent to the popular sushi bar, both of which guard the front of the restaurant. Each component of Jia has its menu, sushi bar, noodle bar and main restaurant, so there is a broad selection of Asian themed dishes to choose from. Teppanyaki tables were added to the main restaurant as well, with Japanese-style grills for tableside preparation of your favorite dish.
Executive chef Kristian Wade told me that a noodle bar was in the works almost two years ago, but Covid delayed its opening. I have been anxiously awaiting the addition to the restaurant and was delighted when it finally opened.
Chef Wade said, “Coastal Mississippi has a strong Vietnamese influence and we have infused local and Eastern culture culinary flavors to develop the Jia menu by delivering the finest product available while also focusing on simplicity and letting the food speak for itself.” And after my first dining experience at Jia since the reimaging, I think Chef Wade and the executive room chef Jason Carlisle nailed it.
I love an open kitchen, and sitting at the noodle bar, watching the chef make the pho I just ordered was a delightful experience. The noodle bar menu consists of five pho choices, five bun (rice vermicelli noodles paired with pork, beef, chicken or shrimp) and five banh mi, the famous Vietnamese sandwich on a French baguette.
I tried the combination pho (pronounced “fuh,” by the way) and always am reminded what the great and much-missed chef Anthony Bourdain said about pho, calling it “a steaming bowl of goodness.” It is an apt description of this amazing dish, which the Vietnamese eat any time of the day. What makes pho so good is the aromatic broth that is its base. Made from roasted beef bones, this amazing stock takes 12 hours to make and is seasoned with star anise, ginger, coriander, cardamon and fish sauce. There are many different pho recipes, using rare beef, meatballs, brisket and even chicken, but if you get the stock wrong, nothing will redeem it.
I also sampled two sushi rolls, the Atom Bomb, made with spicy tuna, topped with masago (smelt roe), spicy mayo and sriracha. I also ordered the Dragon roll, which is a California roll, topped with whole eel and eel sauce. Both were great, but the freshness was astonishing and was the best eel that I have ever had. The sushi bar, which I think of as the best in south Mississippi, has almost a dozen rolls to choose from and ten sushi options.
I also tried two offerings from the Sharing and Salad menu, both of which were delightful. The rare beef in lime juice (a Vietnamese style ceviche), with fried garlic, pickled sweet onion, peppers, peanuts and prawn crackers, was tender, flavorful and just delicious. The fried chicken wings, with chilis garlic and lime, were surprisingly crispy and moist, as well.
Everything that we tried was just off the charts, so when selections from the main menu began to arrive, and we found them even better than what had come before, I was left without words to properly describe them. The caramelized pork belly served with eggs simmered in the same sauce, young coconut juice and fish sauce was delightfully spicy and tender beyond belief, falling-apart tender, but still maintaining a pleasant and fatty texture. The dish that really blew me away was the roasted black cod. I do not think that from the description on the menu I would have ordered this one, but like everything we sampled, the menu did not give a hint of the intensity of flavors and the creativity of the dish. The cod was served with bean curd, pineapple, cucumber and nuoc mam (a Vietnamese dipping sauce), which sound simple, but the complexity of flavors and textures was stunningly good. The fish was perfectly cooked, tender and pulling away from the bone easily, but still pleasantly firm. This is one of the best things I have had to eat in years.
Looking over the menu after our dinner, there were a few items I would like to come back and try. The salmon belly with chiles looked amazing, as did the lemongrass grilled pork chops, caramelized duck and chicken, and the salt and pepper lobster.
Jia is an extraordinary restaurant run by a chef that is at the very top of his game. Hats off to Chef Jason Carlisle and his team for an extraordinary evening. If you are any kind of foodie at all, Jia has got to be on your bucket list.