At the uptown New Orleans restaurant Mister Mao, guests can start a meal with delicately fried lentil Pani Puri cups filled with turmeric potato masala, into which servers tip a fiery and vibrantly green mint and serrano water. The idea is to pop the whole thing in your mouth for a flavor explosion that borrows from India and other parts of Asia.
It’s a talked-about dish among many innovative offerings at Mister Mao, which chef and restaurateur Sophina Uong opened with her husband William “Wildcat” Greenwell. It’s easy to assume the concept is Chinese, but the restaurant is actually named for their cat.
Uong’s roots are Cambodian, though she grew up in California and spent many years in the San Francisco Bay Area working for noted concepts like Restaurant Lulu, Absinthe, Citizen Cake, Revival Bar + Kitchen, Waterbar, Pican and Calavera. While at Calavera she appeared on the Food Network’s “Chopped” and was named Grill Master Napa Champion. She worked briefly at Andrew Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket restaurant in Minneapolis before finding her way to New Orleans.
Uong describes the 100-seat Mister Mao as a “tropical roadhouse” where the locally focused menu might include Korean pork bulgogi with sesame, shiitake and gochugaru chile pickles over grains in a bowl; or a Bavette steak with satsuma-garlic mojo and plantains.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune described it as “fun and fierce,” with bold flavors. It’s the sort of place that draws people looking to celebrate and have fun, she said, even during a year tempered by COVID in a town battered by hurricanes.
“We want to have a lot of fun in the restaurant. The food is vibrant, the music’s vibrant,” she said. “We’ve found since we’ve opened that everyone wants to come in and celebrate.”
Listen to Uong’s plans for Mister Mao, the addition of roving carts and her pan-Asian-inspired take on contemporary Indian cuisine.
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