New Orleans is a mecca for outstanding food. Everybody knows this. Its rich culinary tradition is legendary, and when I moved down there for college, it didn’t take long for me to experience a culinary awakening and realize that I was finally among my own: people who really, really loved and appreciated food in the myriad forms it could take.
But among the nuanced flavors of Cajun cooking, the dignified elegance of Creole technique, and the hearty, satisfying textures of Southern comfort food, we could find no good Americanized Chinese. The Japanese and Vietnamese food that could more easily be found in the city was no substitute for the cornstarch-slurried sauces and inexpensive vegetable-heavy dishes I grew up eating, its absence giving me a newfound appreciation for what so many New Yorkers take for granted.
And so my new best friend Leah and I made it our shared mission to find decent Chinese. Her NorCal roots had her craving the real stuff, the fluffy steamed baos filled with sweet roast pork and shrimp dumplings glistening a pale orange through semi-opaque wrappers. Ironically, I wanted the bastardized versions, the thick-skinned wontons in yellow-dyed broth and fat lo mein noodles that bore no resemblance to crunchy, sauce-topped Cantonese traditions. Although the target dishes were different, our want was the same: a taste of home.
We visited countless all-you-can-eats with ill-conceived names like Ho Ho Superbuffet, fancy sit-downs with price tags my take-out sensibilities balked at, sketchy outposts that were rumored to be dazzlingly “okay.” With their thin, one-note sauces and watered-down flavors, they were invariably disappointing.
It was only when we went to the mall out in the suburbs of Metairie that we found what scratched that itch for something both Asian and something familiar. Cheap, overflowing, and universally recognizable mall chicken.
Over styrofoam containers of white rice, unevenly cooked cabbage and broccoli, and shiny pieces of glistening chicken thighs, the West Coast white girl and her East Coast Asian friend agreed: despite how different “home” was for one another, this was the closest and most reliably we could get to its taste.