ENTER THE DRAGON — SLAY HIM.
Don’t look for slavish reproductions of Far Eastern specialties at Lucky Rooster, the Asian-inspired recent addition to the CBD’s growing dining scene.
“None of the food here is completely authentic,” executive chef and owner Neal Swidler said, “but all of it’s delicious.”
Let’s put it this way: If painstakingly authentic Japanese cuisine is a beautiful performance of traditional kabuki theater, Lucky Rooster is a Godzilla flick: loud, uninhibited — and a hell of a lot of fun.
“This is kind of an Asian ‘best-of,’ a hit parade of Asian favorites,” said Swidler, a 25-year veteran of the New Orleans culinary community who’s helmed kitchens including Mike’s on the Avenue, Delmonico and Nola. After Katrina, the chef’s consulting business brought him to Juan’s Flying Burrito and Slice’s restaurant group, where the idea for a Far Eastern eatery took hold.
The chef brims with enthusiasm for the newly opened restaurant, two years in the making.
“We do a bunch of classics, like a lo mein noodle salad, pork dumplings and crunchy spring rolls, but we’re also doing things that are on the newer side of what’s trending in Asian food right now, like the Korean fried chicken, our kimchi and things like that,” he said.
Housed in a bright, contemporary space decorated with Asian accents and a Chinese jade-and-fire color scheme, the aim at Lucky Rooster, in both the food and the decor, is clearly one of ebullient fun and a healthy dose of humor.
Swidler and his staff clearly had a blast designing and naming menu items and cocktails, referring to their desserts as “Happy Endings,” and titling soups “Enchanting Mermaids” (shrimp, blue crab claws, sweet corn and baby bok choi in a Thai coconut broth, $13) and “Dragon Warrior” (smoked tofu with hot bean-eggplant stir-fry and sugar snap peas, $12), not to mention the “Ghost Face Chillah” cocktail, a mixture of gin, Pineapple Shrubb, tiki bitters and Tsingtao beer ($8).
There’s even a chalkboard — which will soon feature daily specials — offering up lottery numbers in a fortune cookie font.
While the chef and his staff might not take themselves too seriously (a breath of fresh air in a competitive culinary city), they’re all business when it comes to their jobs in the kitchen.
Most of the ingredients are prepared from scratch in-house, including hand-pulled udon and soba noodles, right down to their own fiery take on Sriracha, or “rooster sauce,” the result of a five-day process using red ripe Fresno chiles as its base.
A recent visit to Lucky Rooster began with a newcomer to the Crescent City international flavor scene: Korean fried chicken ($7).
Said Swidler, “That was an epiphany I had when I went to Manhattan on an eating trip two years ago. There were several of these BonChon chicken stands, and they use a Korean chili paste called ‘gochujang,’ a fermented sweet chile, and we’re doing the same thing here. With those garlic and spicy notes on top of this crispy fried chicken, it’s awesome.”
The dish quickly became a customer favorite, and for good reason. The heavily sauced wings pack a punch, though one will definitely make good use of the provided moist towelettes afterwards.
Another of the Rooster’s popular dishes is the Scratch Dumplings ($6), handmade wrappers filled with ground pork with scallions and a touch of sesame, served with Chinese mustard sauces.
Swidler is particularly proud of the restaurant’s “bao,” steamed buns filled to order with red ginger shrimp ($8), honey-cured pork belly with butter lettuce and Thai tomato salsa (a riff on the BLT, for $7), or Korean sticky beef with spicy kimchi slaw ($7). The light and fluffy buns are fashioned in-house.
The shrimp and crab “Chirashi Stack” ($10) is a cool salad featuring Japanese flavors, incorporating layers of avocado, sushi rice, Gulf crab claws tossed in a wasabi aioli, and grilled chile shrimp on top with soy and mango. The noodle soups are a hearty addition to the menu, and worth seeking out for their bold flavors and ingredients.
The restaurant’s namesake dish, the “Lucky Rooster,” brims with tender chicken breast meat and a savory mushroom stir-fry over rice noodles ($12), with the option to add a soft-boiled egg for $1 more.
With generous portions and flavors, make sure to save room for dessert. The house-made “Fortunate Cookie” ($3) claims to be “astrologically correct” and features complementary “obtuse poetry.”
But the clear winner on the dessert menu is the “Kung Pao Cocoa Pot,” a delectable combination of spicy peanut butter mousse with crispy chocolate wafers and peanuts ($5).
Ultimately, for Swidler and the Lucky Rooster, the cuisine and atmosphere all derive from one thing: “I just try to have a lot of fun, and make it fun for everybody, both my customers and my staff,” he said. “I think that’s my job.
“That, and creating beautiful food that’s absolutely delicious and super fresh. I love what I do.”