Exotic Edibles: Ethnic Restaurants

New Orleans is unique in that it is able to offer two distinct regional cuisines, and also has enough restaurants falling under the “ethnic” categories to keep restaurant-goers both interested and occupied. A study conducted by the National Restaurant Association on the popularity of various types of ethnic foods in cities across the country showed preferences to 19 different ethnic restaurant categories. Of these 19 varieties, we can proudly say that New Orleans restaurants cover 17 of the categories mentioned, with Russian and Scandinavian being the odd ones out.

What, if anything do these restaurants have in common? They all offer good values—a desirable quality anytime and anywhere. While restaurants at all points of the price spectrum can offer value for the buck, the restaurants reviewed here are all fairly inexpensive for lunch. A full lunch at any of them will only set you back between $4 and $10.

The Cafe Istanbul (534 Frenchmen) is one of the newer restaurants on the dining scene. Open for less than two months now, they specialize in Turkish cuisine. The menu is an ambitious one, with 17 different appetizers and 15 entrees, plus specials. The entrees are dominated by Kebabs offered in a variety of combinations. As our waiter suggested to us, I will in turn suggest to you—all of the kebabs served with hot yogurt sauce are winners! No specific recommendations here except that the lamb dishes are particularly good. My advice would be, unless you are intimately familiar with Turkish cuisine, you can feel comfortable putting yourself in the hands of the service person. Ours was especially helpful. Or better yet, nab the owner, Suleyman Aydin, if he is in the dining room. He too was incredibly helpful, and is a restaurateur in the true sense of the word. He enjoys discussing his trade. In addition to Cafe Istanbul, he also owns Mona Lisa, another local favorite. We enjoyed talking with him and he seems totally dedicated to the local restaurant scene.

Cafe Istanbul has all the makings of a place that may be around for a while. A stylish and authentic decor, attentive service and an active owner are all positive signs. And the food is great. Try to order a variety of dishes and share them. Be warned however, it will be difficult to pass on appetizers since they are brought to each table on a cart for display. This is a merchandising technique that works, folks, and one that shouldn’t be reserved just for desserts. Go for it—order a few appetizers and share them. And don’t stop there. If you don’t have room for dessert, order a Baklava to travel. The lunch and dinner menus are the same, with lunch only being available on weekends. This may change soon however, and with the addition of live music at night this is one place that you add to your list.

While we cannot claim that Turkish food represents the new trend in preferred eating, the Thai craze is apparently beginning to hit New Orleans. For several years now, cities in the U.S. have seen a proliferation of Thai restaurants, some apparently springing up overnight, the growth has been so fast. We are lucky to have two such restaurants in the city. In fact, the number of Thai restaurants here doubled this past month when the Thai Pepper in the Riverbend area joined Bangkok Cuisine in Mid-City.
The first thing that must be said about Bangkok Cuisine (4137 S. Carrollton) is that its owner, Lou Semiesuke, is the definitive Maitre d’. When I open my next restaurant, he’s the guy I want greeting guests, that is, if he’s available. His personality can’t help but set the mood for an enjoyable meal, and given the consistent quality of the food at Bangkok, that is a sure thing. I have been to Bangkok more times than the other restaurants mentioned here, and possibly more times than anywhere else in the city. But the quality and consistency of both the food and the service always stand out. It also gives me added reassurance when the owner is as ever present as Lou is.

Lunches at Bangkok are a real bargain, offering both value and a reasonable selection. Lunch is served Monday through Friday and specials are available each day, ranging from $3.75 to $4.95. The Cashew Chicken, Chicken Curry, and Bangkok Shrimp are all recommended, although you can’t go wrong with any choice. It’s truly one of the best luncheon menus in town.

If you make it back for dinner, split the Thai Tray of assorted appetizers and go for the Narai Beef or the Supreme Soft Shell Crab entrees. And don’t miss the Seafood Curry special if it is available, shrimp and soft shell crab served over Thai noodles. As with all of their seafood dishes, they are to be commended for the exotic touch they add to the indigenous seafood. Hurry to Bangkok Cuisine for their quality and consistency!

Thai Pepper (8601 Oak) is an unpretentious restaurant in an unpretentious neighborhood. It seems that this area is being discovered and that similar small ethnic restaurants open every month now. We visited Thai Pepper for lunch and were both pleased by the quality of the food and the value. Lunch specials are all in the $3.95 to $4.95 range and include soup, rice and a spring roll. We ordered a sampling of several specials, which I am told change every day. For those of you new to Thai, Paht Thai is a good introduction to the food. Not your standard noodle dish, it offers the complexities of a more sophisticated dish with its different tastes and textures. Shrimp, chicken, green onions, sprouts, and crushed peanuts are mixed with soft noodles to produce an incredibly interesting and well seasoned dish. Be sure to try it if it is available. Other traditional musts include Satay (grilled skewered meats served with sweet peanut sauce) and curry, any type, green or red. The red curry incorporates the sweet coconut milk which is extracted from the pressed meat of the coconut. Coconut milk also serves as a base for some soups and other entrees and adds a beautiful flavor to all recipes in which it is used.

The Thai Pepper is currently serving dinner as well. The dinner menu is more lengthy than it is at lunch and slightly more expensive, but still offers a good value. Tom Kar Gai, not any old chicken soup, is one of Thailand’s greatest contributions to cooking, and belongs in the Soup Hall of Fame. Again, the contrast of flavors in this soup are difficult to describe, so just take my word for it. The night-time menu is dominated by, but not limited to, chicken and seafood entrees. My recommendation is to go for lunch and dinner and work your way through the menu as I plan to.

Finally, we visited two Indian restaurants this month: Tandoor (300 Severn in Metairie) and Old Calcutta (724 Dublin at Riverbend). Both offer lunch and dinner. Old Calcutta also serves breakfast. We visited both restaurants for lunch.

Tandoor offers an all-you-can-eat luncheon buffet from Tuesday through Sunday that is tough to beat for $6.95 ($3.95 for children). In addition, takeout is available for a reduced $4.95. The buffet changes frequently, but always consists of a combination of vegetable curries, dal (prepared lentils), tandoori chicken (marinated in yogurt and broiled in special ovens), a special meat curry, and bread: plentiful, inexpensive and tasty. What more be said? If you are a fan of Indian cooking, head on over for lunch or dinner. My greatest disappointment? While there, I discovered that Kingfisher beer, which Tandoor serves, is now being brewed and bottled in Britain. It used to be a natural accompaniment to Indian food but now is just another generic lager being marketed in this country. You might as well order a Bud.

Old Calcutta is a very attractive Indian restaurant that also serves lunch to eat in or to take out. Their lunch menu consists of six items plus daily specials. All entrees include a salad and nan (bread) and range in price from $4.95 to $5.95. Garlic lovers such as myself should opt for either of two chicken dishes, Calcacian or Vindaloo. While neither of these dishes can be described as subtle, both are well seasoned without being overpowering. Other specials available the day we visited included a marinated chicken and a simmered shrimp and okra dish. Also appearing on the menu, and which should appear on more lunch menus, was a combination soup and salad for $4.95.

A great way to finish off the meal is with that incredible dessert, Gulab Jamun, another potential Hall of Fame dish. Having been a fan of these fried milk balls for years, I was disappointed that the restaurant was out of them while I was there. You can be sure I’ll be back to try them. Instead I had the Cardamon tea, which was excellent. At least it appeased me for a short time following lunch. Our one visit to Old Calcutta certainly whetted our buds and we will soon be back.

That is an introduction to the ethnic restaurants of New Orleans. Just a start, mind you, but you are welcome to continue the investigation on your own. After Turkish, Thai and Indian, there is always Greek, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and the rest. New Orleans is off to a strong start. Move over New York and Chicago, Russian cuisine may soon be arriving in New Orleans.