Two restaurants with deep menus of traditional Chinese flavors seem to be hiding in plain sight directly across from each other along one of the area's busiest boulevards.
The sound of broiled oysters sizzling in their shells is a familiar one in southeast Louisiana, and it will always turn heads. But it wasn't just the sound effects or wafting smell of garlic that captured our attention as a waitress crossed the dining room with one particular order.
Rather, we were intrigued that this dish was coming our way at a Chinese restaurant, and it would not be the only surprise at Soho Asian Cuisine in Metairie.
There was a bubbling hot pot of lamb and dried tofu “skin” in a brown, mushroom gravy, which tasted like a hybrid of Middle Eastern-to-Far Eastern. There was the way a stir-fry of bitter melon and beef changed from almost unbearable to practically irresistible with the addition of chunky hot pepper relish. And there was a whole flounder, another familiar Louisiana dish, but here essentially turned into a tip-to-tail serving platter for its own fillets — half of them fried, half of them steamed, and all of it lavishly garnished as if for a grand banquet.
Soho Asian Cuisine is the latest addition to a small but growing circuit of local Chinese restaurants serving the type of dishes you’d actually find in China. In particular, Soho serves Cantonese cooking, the regional cuisine centered around Hong Kong and known for bright, sometimes tropical flavors, profuse ginger and garlic and often elaborate presentations.
Soho Asian Cuisine is in a building that would be small for a casino but is huge for a restaurant. On it goes, from a roomy lounge and sushi bar, across an expanse of booths and circular tables fitted with revolving trays for shared meals and flanked by live tanks for lobster and Dungeness crabs, past a set of private rooms where groups dine while sitting on the pillowed floor and on to a separate reception hall.
That such a large restaurant serving a menu so unusual for this town should feel like a find is a testament to the camouflaging qualities of its surroundings. Set on a busy block at the start of Veterans Boulevard in Metairie, the address was previously an Asian buffet. Count me among those who assumed, despite the name change, that it still was one.
Ironically, it’s right across the street from another purveyor of traditional Chinese flavors, which also seems a bit hidden. That would be Royal China, where proprietor Shirley Lee has been cooking away for nearly 40 years now in a one-time fast food joint. It’s longevity has almost made it part of the scenery, which is too bad because on one level this is among the more reliable purveyors of comforting Chinese-American standards. But just as this restaurant seems to hide in plain sight, its menu is also far deeper and more deliciously varied than you might discern while zooming past on suburban errands or even after stopping in for quick take-out.
New Orleans doesn’t have its own Chinatown, where in other cities you can go explore traditional flavors of this vast and varied cuisine. But we do have more here than meets the eye, and in the case of the new Soho and the old Royal China we even have two different options staring right across the street at each other.
Soho Asian Cuisine
601 Veterans Memorial Blvd, Metairie, 504-301-2266; www.sohoasiancuisinemetairie.com
600 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 504-831-9633