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A Matter of Taste 

Our critic celebrates the end of a raging cold with a trip to CAFE EQUATOR, where she learned to appreciate the main ingredients all over again.

It had been 10 days since I could last taste, and I clung to the memory of the last dish I enjoyed -- green papaya salad from Bangkok Thai -- like someone might cling to the last letter from a lost love. The prick of lime, the growl of hot chiles and the green papaya's misty crunch were accessible only in reminiscence. I admit now that losing your taste to a raging cold is only a minor cruelty, and probably even therapeutic for someone unnaturally preoccupied with food, but that kind of logic does not easily cut through a 10-day DayQuil haze.

The greatest injustice during a temporary lapse of taste is that you still get hungry. For the first few days I tested a hypothesis that paying good money for food would increase my chances of tasting it. The upshot: the only difference between a $9.95 hamburger with blue cheese and raw onion eaten out and a bowl of steamed white rice eaten in was texture. I then experimented with eating bland foods, only to discover that the subtle cleanliness of raw tuna is an actual flavor: sashimi was gruesome flesh without it. Toothpaste I could taste, which led me to eating several servings of super-charged Blue Bell peppermint ice cream a day; its blustery aftertaste proved more essential to maintaining my spirits than a bottle of codeine-laced cough syrup.

On the 11th day, honoring the green papaya salad of my fading memory, I celebrated with Thai food.

Cafe Equator doesn't offer green papaya salad, but its lemon grass calamari salad rouses languishing taste buds back into action. Lemon grass in thin, edible slices sends waves of pucker-less lemon perfume through every bite, salvaging the standard-issue chewy calamari rings. The dish comes dressed in a spicy, distinctly Asian dressing that embodies the habit-forming powers of anything with this much salt and lime. A beef and mint salad is sluiced in a similar dressing: As you poke through a bowl of iceberg, tender beef strips, red onion, mint and tomatoes, the tide of sauce rises, turning the salad into a sort of Asian gazpacho.

Equator was a Northshore restaurant called Typhoon until a few months ago when, as one waitress put it, the owner moved every pot, employee and ingredient into the former Ground Pat'i space. Equator doesn't have Typhoon's sushi bar, but it does have a separate drinking bar, and a few Japanese items (edamame, seaweed salad) remain on the menu. Simple but well-placed details contribute to an air of Asian mystique (you almost overlook the neon Breaux Mart sign visible through one window and Lakeside Mall through another): gray-black walls airbrushed to evoke the Orient; spotlights piercing through wooden ceiling slats; silverware wrapped in silken buntings; and hot jasmine-scented towels distributed by a gentle, if sometimes harried, staff.

Judging from my meals here, and from the crowds during lunch and dinner services, Equator's often sweet preparations of traditional Thai recipes are accessible to a variety of palates. The standard-bearing dish at any Thai restaurant, pad Thai is subtle on the chiles and the tamarind tang for my taste, but everything else is there: flat noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken, peanuts, and enough salty fish and soy sauces to command a Singha beer. Tom yum koong, whole shrimp in a muscular hot and sour broth, tastes healthy -- like soup a mom in Thailand might make for a sick child.

Massaman and panang coconut curries don't scream with personality, but both make fine introductions to the world of curry. Softly redolent of ginger, lemongrass, garlic and warm spices, the latter is prepared with overly sweet pineapple, sweet potato and pecans (the menu says cashews), then served with jasmine rice. The panang is similar, only nuttier, and tossed with peanuts and spaghetti-like rice noodles. Curries can be prepared with strips of beef or chicken, or whole shrimp, though these meats are mere excuses for eating curry. Anyone not enamored by coconut milk could try the beef lava, made with a dark red sauce that's exceptional for its chile burn.

Besides terra cotta-colored Thai iced tea, there's a terrific nutty toasted rice tea served hot. Thai custard is like a soft, eggy pancake wet with syrup and served over coconut sticky rice.

Equator cooks do stray from the traditional Thai line, sometimes to good end. The Savage Fish (eek!) is a tilapia fillet swathed in puffy fried batter and covered with nickel-size shrimp, baby corn and a clear, incendiary red chile sauce. The Indian-style karee pap, fried wontons stuffed like samosas, are worth a try. On the other hand, shrimp egg rolls seem to be filled with bland vegetable paste, and fried rice from any Chinese buffet is likely to have more oomph than the two offered here.

Equator probably won't win the affections of diners who fell for Thai cooking in cities with more competitive Thai restaurant scenes. It does, however, fill a niche in Metairie, and the vibrant play of ingredients -- sour lime, hot chiles, salty fish sauce, sugar and fresh herbs -- is a glorious thing to (finally) taste.

click to enlarge Standard bearer: The pad Thai at CAFÉ EQUATOR might not be as spicy as it should be, but it's got all the right parts with a salty kick. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Standard bearer: The pad Thai at CAFÉ EQUATOR might not be as spicy as it should be, but it's got all the right parts with a salty kick.
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