A cornerstone of the Pu-Pu platter – companion to crab rangoon, sticky red ribs, fried wontons and other Americanized Chinese bites – shrimp toast is finally getting the respect I have long denied it.
As a child I indulged at every chance my passion for the two-bite morsels. At once chewy, crisp, briny and vaguely greasy, there was nothing not to love. As my palate “evolved” I turned my back on my old friend in favor of more sophisticated choices like spring rolls and shaomai.
A recent experience set me free from what I now know was simple snobbery. I make no secret of my passion for dishes I suspect were created with the assistance of a bong. I thrill to ridiculous, incongruous combinations that somehow work, dishes like Commander’s Palace’s Shrimp Hennican (fried shrimp, pepper jelly, tasso, pickled okra and hot sauce beurre blanc), and the sandwich of braised collards, Swiss cheese, pickled cherry pepper dressing and cole slaw on buttered and griddled rye bread at Turkey and the Wolf. Thus, I was destined to become obsessed with the screwy riff Jason Lambert concocted for his shrimp toast at Toups South. As Chef de Cuisine at the pan Southern temple of meat and general excess, Lambert has an all-access pass to whatever ingredients may spark his imagination. He used his privilege to blend the decadence of foie gras into shrimp paste, which he then slathered upon humble white bread before he pan fried it and then topped it with a sunny yard egg, a heap of bright kimchee and a shower of fresh herbs. The result: An over-the-top sensory overload that hits every taste bud. The $16 price tag takes it out of the humble category but the richness of the dish and the accompaniments turn it into a full meal for a reasonable price.
Thus released from my shrimp toast shame and craving more I set out on an exploration of simpler renditions of the old school favorite. At China Palace in Harahan a simple concoction of ground shrimp and eggs whites is heaped upon what appeared to be flattened hamburger buns before it’s cut in quarters and deep fried. A four quarter portion costs $4.25. At Borgne a combination of both ground and whole small shrimp are bound together atop white bread that’s cut into the tiniest of triangles then fried and served with sweet chili sauce and pickled red onions. A serving gets you six pieces for $12. At Empress of China, an opulent 1980s throwback that left me homesick for the long-gone House of Lee, eight pieces of the classic go for $7.25. China Orchid in the Riverbend comes closest to the sacred goo of my youth. For $5.50 I enjoyed six pieces of the chewy, crisp, briny and vaguely greasy delicious I have denied myself for far too long. A coating of white sesame seeds was pushed into the shrimp paste before it was fried, sealing the deal for me.
When the heat goes up I crave cold and raw foods. Sushi is always near the top of the list and Tsunami is one of my go-tos. My favorite bites are Luscious Lemonfish (lemon fish, thin slices of lemon and jalapeno with ponzu), TransBestBite (minced spicy tuna, tempura shrimp, kani, cream cheese and asparagus, soy wrapped and panko fried with plum, ponzu and tsurai sauce), the Pimp Salad (seared tuna, snow crab, cucumber, tomato, asparagus, avocado, masago and sesame soy ponzu dressing) and the Kabuki Roll (minced spicy tuna, shrimp, kani, asparagus, cucumber, soy wrapped, masago, scallion and ponzu sauce).
Head in on weekdays from 3-6 p.m. for Happy Hour specials: $5 house martinis, Cosmos, apple-tinis and Lemon Drops; $4 house wines and draft beer; $3 select domestic bottles, well liquors and hot sakes; 25% off all rolls $9 and under, $ .99 for select nigiri; and half off of Luscious Lemonfish (hooray!), Smoked Salt Escolar, Yuzu Albacore and Truffle Salmon.
Borgne, (in the Hyatt Regency), 601 Loyola Ave., 613-3860, BorgneRestaurant.com
China Orchid, 704 S. Carrollton Ave., 865-1428, ChinaOrchidNewOrleans.com
China Palace, 1915 Hickory Ave. D, Harahan, 737-8988
Empress of China, 429 Wall Blvd., Gretna, 392-3939, EmpressOfChinaNola.com
Toups South, 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 304-2147, ToupsSouth.com
Tsunami Sushi, (in the Pan American Life Center), 601 Poydras St., 608-3474, ServingSushi.com