Exploring Cantonese comfort food at an unconventional Chinese restaurant in Kenner.
You can’t miss the fact that Little Chinatown’s building along busy Williams Boulevard in Kenner was once a Pizza Hut. The distinctively boxy roof design makes its franchise heritage plain enough, despite the new name and Chinese lantern décor around the doors. It’s just as obvious, however, that Little Chinatown is something quite apart from your everyday Chinese restaurant.
Just look at the dry-erase specials board on the front door, marked by Chinese characters and brief but arresting translations like “snails with black beans” and “salt and pepper frog legs.” Then there are the steaming clay pots making the rounds at big tables surrounded by Chinese families and the steady stream of young people, who banter in Chinese with the waiters and weave endless strands of noodles from bowl to mouth between glugs of beer.
Little Chinatown is the inverse of those restaurants where a few authentic dishes lurk amid the standard Americanized fare. Here, it’s the sweet and sour pork and the crab Rangoon that seem out of place. And they’re greatly outnumbered by dishes like whole steamed fish lashed with ginger or bowls of congee, a soupy rice porridge bolstered by bits of duck and pickled egg.
Little Chinatown joins a small but growing concentration of local restaurants that highlight more hometown Chinese cooking. There’s China Rose in Fat City and Jung’s Golden Dragon, long a Metairie mainstay that’s now Uptown on Magazine Street. Both of these places have separate Chinese menus running alongside their rosters of more familiar Chinese-American dishes. Imperial Garden in Kenner is another example. Little Chinatown came along in 2010 and specifically showcases the Cantonese cooking of its owners’ native Hong Kong. It’s fun to explore their menu, though this does require some decoding.
Dishes described as “salt toasted” turn out to be fried and practically tiled with minced garlic, green onions and jalapenos, and this is also true of those called “salt and pepper” dishes. This robust seasoning mix is good when applied to large, shell-on shrimp or chicken wings, better on squid or soft shell crab, and it’s superlative on crisp quails, hacked into chunks and drizzled with lemon. In the same way, dishes described as “blackened” aren’t cooked Cajun-style, but they are liberally flecked with black pepper, as in the case of a hot pot of beef short ribs in a thick gravy sown with garlic.
Soups are another specialty, and most are large enough to ladle out around the table. For instance, one has roasted duck, tender pork dumplings, springy egg noodles, greens and a rich, golden broth, while another was served with puffed rice crackers, which are floated on top to re-saturate before falling apart in the broth.
Give the specials board a whirl and you could find yourself sucking tiny, bean-sized snails from their dark shells -- dozens and dozens of these snails to a plate, all under a blanket of pepper and onions. True, sometimes the waiters try to steer newcomers back to the more familiar lunch specials and away from the exotic fare. But adventurous eaters should stick to their guns, insist on chopsticks and get ready for a spin through Cantonese comfort cooking.
3800 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-305-0580