It’s fitting that expectations are challenged at the mention of the name. Mister Mao is decidedly not a Chinese restaurant. Named in honor of their cat, owners Sophina Uong and William “Wildcat” Greenwell instead describe it as “a tropical roadhouse serving up global cuisine.” This catch-all phase is as good as any at encapsulating the spirit of Mister Mao, which features dishes that elude easy categorization with the smooth grace of Alvin Kamara slipping past tackles. “Kashmiri Fried Chicken,” aggressively seasoned with ancho, Szechuan peppercorns and black salt lime cream (among other flavors) sits cheek-by-jowl with Korean pork bulgogi built on a sauce featuring Miller High Life and kimchi ‘sprouts’ in a grain bowl. Grab a seat at the kitschy bar overlooking the kitchen and watch the combined front/back staff do their thing and you will realize you are not in Kansas anymore.
You are, however, in the former home of Dick and Jenny’s, which (at least in its original iteration) blazed a genre-bending path for years until it finally shut down. When word of its impending closure spread, Uong and Greenwell, already looking to upsize their pop-up to a brick and mortar, made their move. “The day the article came out about the closing, we had our agent give the owners a call. We were third in line, but I made the landlords food and kissed their butts. It was us against two New Yorkers,” Uong said. “I think we won out because we lived here.” So, happily, the iconoclast spirit of Dick and Jenny’s lives on, albeit operating at some higher dimensional plane.
About the menu. “Most of it is honoring the foods that my husband likes to eat,” Uong said. “He loves Indian and Pakistani flavors. I’m Cambodian, so I like Southeast Asia cuisine. But ultimately what I think we are best at is the everyday Mexican food.” Such a variegating palette yields dishes like their “Pani Puri,” featuring turmeric-spiced potato masala with tamarind chutney served in an edible ramekin that gets filled with chilled mint water at the point of service, like a millennial take on sherry in turtle soup. The burst of competing sensations – hot, cold, spicy, minty – is more akin to an experience than a flavor. Seemingly forgotten one-hit-wonders like sunchokes reappear here roasted and smoked, with a meaty texture that picks up the briny umami of white anchovies and the smothering comfort notes of a smoked onion Caesar dressing. If you are simply looking for snacks to accompany the similarly esoteric bar menu, you can choose between pineapple Hawaiian rolls made with al pastor proteins or savory packets of escargot Wellington.
Clearly, the emphasis is on fast and loose creativity here. “I’m really trying to encourage our kitchen to experiment,” Uong explained. “Most cooks will know how to use Tahini in a Middle Eastern application but how might you use it in a Chinese dish? That is how we encourage them to approach it. This makes it fun.”
Lest you think this is mere noodling, it helps to know that Uong spent time in some of San Francisco’s best kitchens before going on to win top grill champion on The Food Network’s “Chopped She also spent time in Cajun country learning the art of boucherie, as well as in the venerable Restaurant August. Reservations are highly recommended, and the bar seating offers a fresh perspective on the open kitchen.
Mister Mao, 4501 Tchoupitoulas St., 345-2056, Mistermaonola.com.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef and Owner Sophina Uong grew up in Long Beach, California and later wound up in the Bay Area for about 30 years, where she attended Berkley before becoming entrenched in the restaurant scene. Following her success on The Food Network’s Chopped, she and her husband William Greenwell eventually made their way to New Orleans. They both worked in clutch of high-profile kitchens and bars before testing the waters with pop-ups at Zony Mash and Coffee Science. Mister Mao is their first full-service restaurant. “It was either buying a house here or investing in ourselves,” says Uong of their grand experiment.