Say hello to a new wave of Asian mash-up restaurants. But unlike the fine-dining fusion temples so popular in the 1980s and ’90s, these are decidedly more dressed down, with a tongue-in-cheek approach more in line with street food than white tablecloths. One thing they all have in common is willingness to raid the condiment cupboards across national lines, as well as profusion of bao – white ovals of steamed dough that serve as a foldable platform for a variety of accompaniments from the mundane (grilled chicken) to the inspired (honey cured pork belly, butter lettuce and Thai tomato salsa).
Bao may be trending and arguably supplanting the banh mi as a creative canvas, but there are plenty more novel creations at these places to keep guests coming back.
At Lucky Rooster on Baronne Street, chef Neal Swidler makes his bao in-house using a dough made from flour, salt, water and a bit of oil. After it rises they punch it down, let it rise again and then steam it to set its shape. When the order comes up the disks get filled and then steamed again before going out to the tables. “Our BLT is filled with cured and seared pork belly with a Rooster aioli and a Thai-style tomato salsa, as well as Japanese shiso leaves. I don’t want to hide that in a filled bun – I want to show it off.” Hence the fold-over style bao.
All the bao at Lucky Rooster are worth trying, and they come two to an order and work well for family-style sharing. Along with the BLT, there’s a Korean version with sesame barbecue beef and a spicy kimchee slaw – a fusion-like condiment whose creamy matrix slightly tempers and spreads out the garlic and chili bite like some kind of culinary time-release mechanism. A shitake spring roll offers a shitake mushroom and rice mousse that provides body as well as a tamarind hoisin sauce for sweet and sour punch. “Even the non-vegetarians like that one,” Swidler says.
Lucky Rooster draws heavily from Chinese and Korean cuisines. Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese appear as well. Chef Swidler doesn’t call it fusion, though. The latest effort from the emergent restaurant group behind Juan’s Flying Burrito and Slice, Lucky Rooster takes advantage of Swidler’s fine dining background (he served as chef de cuisine at NOLA as well as Delmonico) to present a more dressed up offering. With Joe Briand on board as general manager, it definitely is a fancier offering from the group. The restaurant’s large plate glass windows overlook a swath of the CBD near the emerging South Market corridor and a slick interior features Flavor Paper wallpaper as well as repurposed original architectural details. It is a promising addition to the revitalized neighborhood’s mix.
“There is kind of a ‘snacky’ style to this type of food. It’s all from scratch but it isn’t pretentious or stuffy,” says Swindler. “But the thing is you don’t just rely on novelty. You got to say, this is the right food at the right time at the right place. There has to be a sense of timelessness about the food and that is what I think we really have going for us.”
Ba Chi Canteen on Maple Street is a decidedly youthful spinoff from Gretna’s popular Tan Dinh. But instead of sticking close to home with the rote Vietnamese staples of chargrilled pork and pho, here you’ll find a mash-up of dishes that reach into a cross-cultural toolbox. First and foremost are the creative “Bacos” – steamed and folded bao similar in assemblage to that of Lucky Rooster. Korean cuisine makes an appearance with a Bulgogi Brisket Baco garnished with kimchee (as well as in the kimchee french fries), and Japanese accompaniments help define the flavors of the spicy catfish with eel sauce and nori. Vegetarian options include honey ponzu tofu Bacos, dressed with wasabi aioli and pickled ginger, as well as one with tamarind tofu with a chili mango sauce. Also interesting is a $25 seven course beef “Tasting Menu” – an all-in offering rare at this kind of price point.
Formerly the site of Figaro’s Pizzeria, Ba Chi joins an emerging strip of Maple Street eateries that cater to both the neighborhood and nearby universities. There is plenty on the menu that draws from the more traditional offerings of Tan Dinh, such as garlic butter chicken wings and Vietnamese crêpes, but this newcomer clearly aims for a younger demographic excited about food and more willing to try new flavor combinations. At press time it was BYOB and offers enclosed patio seating as well as its primary dining room.
Pho Bistreaux, Uptown at the corner of Carrollton Avenue and Oak Street, was formerly the location of a steamed burger joint and before that the Curry Corner. Housed in an old Whitney bank and with a large, open kitchen, the menu is largely traditional Vietnamese. But it does break with tradition on its appetizer and spring roll sections. There you will find “Sliders” offering grilled chicken or grilled pork in a choice of two wrappings – the puffy steamed goodness of bao or (interestingly) tortillas. Both offer the same garnishes, including cilantro, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, as well as jalapeño peppers and aioli. The Bistreaux Egg Rolls are essentially fried egg rolls grafted onto a traditional spring roll by means of a rice wrapper and served with a house-made peanut dipping sauce. The prices are low to begin with, but you get your dollar’s worth here. A shrimp with avocado spring roll makes for a fairly atypical but pleasing choice as well. Vegetarians will find a lot of options here, such as a lemongrass tofu as well as a tofu banh mi.
The menu at Booty’s Street Food, while global, offers a lot of Asian overlap and you can find dishes that play with a lot of the same ingredients as found here. Chill Out Café, right, also on Maple Street, offers traditional Thai food but has a Western breakfast menu grafted onto it, allowing you to enjoy waffles alongside your pad thai.
Don’t Bao Out
515 Baronne St.
Lunch Mondays-Fridays; dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays
Ba Chi Canteen
7900 Maple St.
Lunch and dinner Mondays-Saturdays
1200 S. Carrollton Ave.
Lunch Tuesdays-Sundays; dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays