Grills smoking with pork and chicken and shrimp. Rice cookers steaming. The hiss of hot oil.
Budsi’s Authentic Thai
You can smell it the second you open your car door outside of the Mid-City neighborhood haunt Pals Lounge. The unmistakable mingling of meat and fire and smoke. But this is a different aroma from your normal backyard barbecue. A sweet, citrusy lemongrass whiff is hiding in the vapor with the sharpness of charred ginger and the pleasant sourness of fermented fish sauce.
Approaching Pals you see it. Like a mirage. A tent with a full kitchen operation built from the ground up under a silver camping canopy. Grills smoking with pork and chicken and shrimp. Rice cookers steaming. The hiss of hot oil. Scorching hot woks tossing vegetables and noodles. A whole mise en place of herbs and sauces laid out on plastic pop-up tables under the full moonlight. In the time it took me to order a drink at the bar a line quickly formed outside the tent. Wide-eyed customers salivating at the sights and smells. If you blocked out the colorful shotgun houses on each side of your peripheral vision you could easily pretend you are on the chaotic streets of Southeast Asia. If only from the enticing fragrance and the back and forth of the cooks speaking Thai. Budsaba Mason and her husband Jared moved to New Orleans two years ago from Loburi, or Monkey City, as some Thai tourist may know it, where she had a small restaurant. But she grew up in the small rice farming community of Issan in Central Thailand.
“Everyone in Issan knows how to cook,” Mason said. I helped my mother and father with everything as soon as I could, from cooking to planting rice. They’re farmers, so all the children had to help out.”
It shows. Tonight the menu offers up Thai street food staples like crispy, herbal fried shrimp cakes. A classic Penang curry with bell peppers, bamboo, and crunchy green beans. Slippery stir-fried drunken noodles seem to be the big seller, along with grilled P\pork shoulder and shumai-style pork dumplings. Budsaba, who goes by the nickname Budsi, loves the parallels between New Orleans and Thailand.
“We visited New Orleans once and really loved the city,” she said. “It reminds me of the easygoing Thai lifestyle a little bit. I started cooking food here just for my
husband’s family and everyone said they’d never really had anything like it. We started doing pop-ups and the response has been amazing.”
Her favorite thing to eat is still tom sam, traditional green papaya salad pounded in a wooden mortar and pestle. Seasoned with fresh chiles, fermented fish sauce, lime juice, and crabs in brine. She tells me they were poor growing up, and often survived on bamboo soup and sticky rice. Foods she is still nostalgic for and says her father still prefers to this day.
“I always make my food my way. People in this city can handle it. You can’t compromise with Thai food, it’s either real or it’s not. My regulars appreciate it. They eat everything I give them, they’re not afraid of the spice.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that New Orleans and Thailand rest along the same basic latitude and longitude on planet Earth. The foods and the attitude toward life are not dissimilar. Spicy foods prevail in hot humid climates across the globe. There is sound science behind how foods that kick your sweat glands into high gear actual help cool you down in sultry climates, as crazy as that sounds. The slow-moving, easy-going lifestyle is a logical byproduct of the sweltering, torrid atmosphere.
Budsi still likes her food spicy. And just like Thailand, New Orleans cuisine excites her taste buds.
“I love the food here, especially boiled crawfish,” she explained.
Oddly enough, she tells me she actually has a slight allergy to shellfish.
“I have to eat Benadryl before sometimes, but I don’t care,” she said.
Budsi’s Authentic Thai pop-up can be found at Pals Lounge in Mid City on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m.. But there is a growing plethora of great Thai food in New Orleans. Here’s is my rundown of a handful of other great Thai food spots to feast on the spicy, sweet, and sour cuisine of Thailand in the greater New Orleans area.
Is it possible for a restaurant to kick your butt? To physically assault your palate in such a way that you LIKE it? We are talking some Fifty Shades of flavor here. The kind of masochistic torture that is so good you dare not utter your safe word? (My safe word is Bun Bo Hue, by the way.)
The secret is out: Some of the best Thai food in the area is in Chalmette, commingling with the tire repair shops and Latin grocery stores, and slowly rebuilding commercial storefronts.
Secret Thai Restaurant hides in a little strip mall in a sharp bend of Judge Perez Highway. Blink and you might miss it. But don’t worry, the name is actually quite ironic, there is no possible way you could miss it. During the day the colorful murals shine like rainbow swirls across the building. At night the neon red signage breathes light like dragon fire into the parking lot.
The food here is good. Like REALLY good. Let me get that out of the way. It is also cheap. Like REALLY cheap. But I’ll get back to that.
For about 10 minutes we scratched our heads and searched our phones trying to decipher the menu. Then threw caution to the wind and ordered half the menu at random. Specifically the words we didn’t understand.
“You want it spicy?” YES MA’AM. We want it spicy.
And so it was. The dishes started rolling out as they were completed. This is family style, so come with friends that don’t mind you reaching across the table for another helping. And wear deodorant, because it’s about to get sweaty.
First came the nom tok. A funky beef salad pounded in a pungent fish sauce/lime juice slurrie so good you could drink it on its own. Red hot chiles cling to the beef. Smoky, toasted rice powder brings depth. Fresh cilantro and mint brighten it all up. Served with a wedge of cabbage that we rolled the beef into and moaned in satisfaction between crunchy bites.
A plate of pad woon sen tasted clean and healthy with fresh hunks of tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, and mushrooms stir-fried up with chewy, clear glass noodles.
Pork larb was similar to the nom tok, but the sweetness of the crumbled pork made this one of our favorite bites. If you are unsure what to order, the laarb is a GREAT place to start.
Massive bowls of khao soi came next. Sweet curried coconut broth packed with turmeric yellow chicken thighs and spicy chiles. This bowl of noodles could easily feed two people. Maybe three. There seriously seemed to be a pound of chewy egg noodles in this bowl, and we struggled to pass it around the table it was so heavy.
Wide drunken noodles tossed with vegetables and chicken was refreshing after the richness of the khao soi. And the noodles tasted like they were possibly freshly made. They were wide, chewy, and the silky sauce clung to them perfectly.
A green papaya som tam salad came last. We thought it would be a refreshing end to the meal. It was the exact opposite. It was scorching hot with Thai chiles. But in that kind of way where you keep going back for more. Sweating, I pulled out the tiny crabs that give the som tam its lovely fishy flavor behind the heat and started sucking the juice out of them. The papaya was crunchy and little green beans covered in smashed garlic were packed with more flavor than a green bean should ever have.
Most of these dishes hover at $12 bucks or less. Eight massive plates of amazing food shared between six people provided plenty of leftovers to take home. And the bill landed at $100 bucks. This is absolutely mind-boggling for the amount and quality of the food.
My only other advice? Go with the flow at Secret Thai. There are just a couple of ladies back there producing every dish from scratch. This isn’t fast food and it isn’t “your way.” You get it how they have made it their entire lives and you should consider yourself lucky to be in the position to enjoy it. Our meal clocked in at just around two hours, and what a glorious two hours of eating it was!
Long Chim has been making the rounds in New Orleans for awhile as a pop up at local breweries and the Catahoula hotel. At first keeping it simple with som tam, their take on the perplexingly refreshing, but spicy green papaya salad. A classic riff on the old staple pad thai and steamed pork dumplings.
Now they have a permanent home in the Auction House Market, a bustling food hall beautifully decorated with hanging air plants and a large welcoming bar. We dropped by on their grand opening to try the khao soi chicken noodle soup, a famous street food soup from the mountainous Chiang Mai Province of Thailand. Long Chim’s version is beautiful to behold: nutty, complex, and spicy without being aggressive.
The meat from a whole stewed chicken leg slid off the bone without any help from my chopsticks. Gravity was enough to free the juicy meat. It mingled perfectly with perfectly cooked egg noodles and crunchy pickled mustard greens, red onion, and a birds nest of fried noodles. The fried noodles are perfect for soaking up the leftover gingery, turmeric-yellow coconut broth. This is a bowl of soup meant to be paired with a cold beer or a sharp sip of Soju. We also ordered the brightly colored mango sticky rice, which gets its sky blue tinge from the all-natural butterfly pea flower. The sweet sticky rice and fresh mango work perfectly as a palate cleanser post khao soi. Long Chim rounds out their short menu with brightly colored, hue-changing “Unicorn Noodles,” a green curry, and Thai style BBQ pork over rice.
Banana Blossom opened its doors in 2009, and since then has been one of the top choices for many New Orleanians looking for a taste of Thailand. The interactive menu is smart, and allows you to modify your noodle soup with a range of proteins, spice levels, and accoutrements. My personal favorite is the BB seafood curry noodles. It’s a deep-flavored curry with shrimp, squid, and mussels topped with red onions, fried shallots, herbs, and a seven-minute egg. But the real reason I suggest you drive over to this Westbank noodle joint is the roti bread. Seriously, the roti bread here is the best I’ve had in the city or anywhere else. It is magically fluffy, buttery, and slightly smoky. One order is never enough. You could wrap an old shoe in this roti bread and I would happily eat it. I also recommend you engage the owners of this establishment for a chat, they are lovely people and are very passionate about the food they prepare here.
Thai Zaap was one of the first Thai restaurants suggested to me by friends who had recently taken the trip to Southeast Asia. Unlike most Thai restaurants in the big easy that hail from Central or Northern Thailand, the owners of Thai Zaap migrated from the south. You can still order the staples here like laarb, tom sam, and pad thai. But I suggest you take the advice of the lovely waitresses here and get the charcoal grilled pork or chicken with sticky rice. This sharable meal is perfect with a couple friends, and a couple beers. It’s a great way to feel like you are on vacation for a couple minutes or a couple hours. I’d also suggest the poh tak, a spicy lemongrass soup packed with seafood and herbs.
Chill Out Cafe
Chill Out Cafe resides in a cute little cottage along a stretch of Maple Street Uptown packed with great restaurants. It feels appropriate in this homey setting because the Thai family that runs the place are very warm and welcoming. At a recent meal here we had dense and slippery shrimp stuffed dumplings. A bright, tangy, and spicy papaya salad. Pork laarb was refreshing, filling, and packed with herbs, but I really liked the drunken udon noodles here. They have the weight and the chew of a great-hand pulled noodle. Everything at Chill Out Cafe is obviously very fresh. I always walk away feeling like we ate something both delicious and healthy.