When I was a teenager, I never thought I’d reach the age of 50. Hell, I didn’t think I’d turn 30! Not only did it seem oh-so far away, I had this morbid idea that I’d die young from some horrific disease or grisly car accident. Maybe it was because my father was in and out of the hospital (he lived to be 80), or perhaps I was goth before it was cool, but I couldn’t see a future ahead of me no matter how much I hoped it would come about. Who knew?
This past Friday, August 20th, 2021, I made it to the half-century mark and regardless of society’s current woes (damn you Delta variant!), I was in the mood to celebrate. Though I had considered dining at one of our old favorites like Patois or Herbsaint, the brand new “tropical roadhouse” Mister Mao was calling my name.
You may not remember, but I wrote a fairly scathing review of Dick & Jenny’s (the restaurant formerly housed in this space) in 2009, and even though it was a whole new ball of wax, John and I were still somewhat hesitant when we walked into the low-slung building on Tchoupitoulas Street. Gone are the painted plates and old-school fixtures. The walls are now painted in a pastel pink and teal green, and the decor has an art deco/Miami Vice-type vibe, but the real changes are on the menu.
While I was in the mood to “party,” I still didn’t want to drink. No matter how delicious the cocktail, any kind of booze makes me sick, so John decided to indulge a bit on my behalf. He ordered an Uncle Butthead made with mezcal, amaro ciociaro, lime and cane sugar — kind of like an Italian Caipirinha with a Mexican twist. I played it safe with a bright and smoky Hibiscus Masala Limeade, which vaguely reminded me of a mangonada.
Our dining adventure truly began with a beautiful bowl of cherry tomatoes, cucumber, chilled white corn pudding, and cumin herb jam. I wasn’t quite sure if this was meant to be a dip, but I had no qualms shoveling it into my mouth by the spoonful. We did also get an order of pineapple Hawaiian bread, but the slightly sweet, buttery rolls were served with a grilled eggplant “caviar” seasoned with baharat (a Middle Eastern spice blend of tumeric, nutmeg, cardamom etc.) and saba (an Italian, unfermented grape reduction). For my Persian relatives and friends, the eggplant dip was reminiscent of kashke bademjan, only more sweet and tart. Y’all would love it!
I can’t recall if it had a funky name, but John’s entree was a comparatively mellow bowl of shredded pork shoulder, cooked low and slow, sweet instead of smoky, with orzo and fresh herbs. I kept getting a breakfast vibe off of his dish, and the cool, herbal flavor was a great contrast to my plate of Kashmiri Chile Fried Chicken, an item from the “Hellfire and Heartburn” section of the menu. Boneless chunks of chicken breast were coated in chickpea flour, fried into crispy, crunchy bliss, seasoned with turmeric and ancho chiles and served with syrupy strawberries atop a sweet, mango yogurt. It seems the chicken was also doused in a stronger chili oil, because ancho tends to be more smoky than hot, and the dish was much spicier than your average jalapeno. Does it sound like I’m complaining? I’m not!
I absolutely had to have dessert, it was my birthday after all, so I chose the falooda. Being the half-Persian mutt I am, I was all too familiar with faloodeh, a half-frozen type of sorbet made with rose water, lime and vermicelli noodles. This was something yet again. Falooda is the Indian version of the Persian dessert which typically includes ice cream, milk and fruit. At Mister Mao, an oval scoop of peach sherbert floated on a pool of orange blossom milk swimming with cubes of basil gelée, canned peach, and vermicelli. As a child, I could never wrap my mind or palate around faloodeh, but I loved the falooda. It was cooling, not too sweet, and an interesting combination of textures and flavors. John was wholly confused by it, so I was able to enjoy almost all of it at my leisure. It may be time to try faloodeh again!
On their website, Mister Mao claims they’re “quirky, eclectic, and unapologetically inauthentic.” I would like to add “fan-fucking-tastic” to that description. Here’s hoping my next 50 birthday dinners are equally enjoyable!