Chefs schooled in Thai cuisine often grasp the way a little artistry can lift casual, everyday meals above expectations, and Jimmy Cho at Banana Blossom Thai Cafe in Gretna is no exception.
His cooking embodies the vibrancy that makes Thai cuisine so crave-worthy — with a blend of spicy, sweet, sour, sharp and smooth, often all in one dish. Many of his dishes also bear evidence of uncommon creativity and forethought. Shrimp coated in coconut and panko seem to reach out from a cocktail tumbler lined by carved vegetables; razor-thin slices of fried jalapeno and shredded carrot mix it up with calamari; and laap (also called larb), a salad of finely ground beef, herbs and atomized rice, is cradled in cups of fresh lettuce and abundantly garnished with herbs. These touches are all the more impressive at a restaurant where scarcely anything on the menu exceeds $12.
Banana Blossom serves the familiar roster of seemingly simple yet lush Thai dishes, but it covers the range better than most and has a few special items. For instance, a clattering pile of stir-fried clams arrives with spicy, garlicky, burgundy-colored sauce cupped in each shell and a sheaf of puffy, butter-crisped roti bread for dredging. A tangle of fried egg noodles rises like a crusty cloud from a bowl of yellow coconut curry, ready to be hacked down with your chopsticks and softened in the aromatic pool below.
Cho grew up working at his parents' noodle shop in northeast Thailand and eventually landed in New Orleans to study at Delgado Community College. He decided to open his own restaurant last year and took over a strip mall slot that had been Cafe Zen before that sushi restaurant relocated a few doors away.
His menu follows the typical Thai format with a variety of curries, noodles and fried rice dishes. The short lineup of "signatures" has some standouts, and I wish there were more dishes on the list. The fried soft-shell crab floating atop a velvety red curry is worth a trip alone.
Pad thai was refreshingly greaseless though rather unexciting, with silken rice noodles and audibly crunchy sprouts but not enough punch. That seems a common shortcoming at Banana Blossom, as though Cho is pulling his punches with the famously fierce Thai chiles. The tom yum soup, another Thai standard, was more robust, and the same lemongrass and cilantro broth can be bulked up with rice noodles and meat or seafood for a substantial entree soup. I chose shrimp, requested extra spicy heat and slurped my way through a light, invigorating lunch that was on par with a good bowl of Vietnamese pho.
Banana Blossom again exceeds expectations with desserts, normally an after-thought at many local Asian restaurants. Here, bananas are fried either with crunchy tempura batter or in thin wonton wrappers, and both renditions are dramatically circled with chocolate sauce.
You can get Thai iced tea or equally sweet Thai iced coffee, but remember Banana Blossom is BYOB. With all the evident care going into the cooking here, it's worth bringing a better-then-average bottle.