Photo by Cheryl Gerber
It looks like a diner, serves short orders like a diner and at breakfast can even taste like a diner. But a trip to Chill Out Café is more likely to focus on Thai noodles, curries and lemongrass-flavored soups than eggs and sausage with a side of toast.
Bo Chen, owner of the Japanese restaurant Kyoto 2 in Harahan, opened Chill Out Café in late fall. Located in a former Maple Street cottage, the restaurant has a long diner counter and lots of small tables, and the breakfast menu covers American morning standards. But the cafe also is billed as a place for Asian fusion. Bright red bottles of sriracha hot sauce, an icon of southeast Asian cooking, are more prominent than bottles of Heinz ketchup, the icon of American diners.
Most of the dishes are familiar Thai classics, from the much-better-than-average pad Thai, with refreshingly greaseless noodles and assertive peanut sauce, to red curries which are watery but satisfyingly spicy. An attentive eye to presentation and excellent value help the restaurant stand out among the better-known Thai places, even if the plain ambience is far short of the pack.
Entrees are divided between rice and noodle dishes, and in most cases it's up to the customer to order them with beef, chicken, vegetables only or with the surprisingly good seafood mix of squid, crawfish, tiny scallops and large shrimp. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect these $9 stir-fries, prepared in less than 10 minutes, to come out as hasty piles, but the kitchen adds some thoughtful touches, like cucumber or tangles of shredded cabbage or carrot for visual appeal and substantial fresh crunch.
Fried tilapia in a simple, aromatic basil sauce and an assortment of ginger rice dishes singing with bits of the piquant root are good bets, but the short appetizer list has some of the menu's most appealing items. Shumai dumplings taste and seem handmade, with a minced mixture of pork and chicken bursting through the thin noodle wrapper's top. The same shumai are served in a meal-sized soup with large shrimp and clear, light broth. Bacon-wrapped shrimp also are quite good, but be forewarned the bacon conceals an unadvertised wad of chicken tucked inside.
There's no bar, but the cafe serves some interesting soft drinks, like Thai iced coffee, which is as sweet as the more common Thai iced tea.
Chill Out Café serves breakfast anytime it's open, but on weekdays that doesn't happen until 10 a.m., which probably works best for some of the college students in the neighboring Riverbend area. Early risers are not missing much, unless they wake up late one morning with a hankering for Chill Out's unusual crabstick and crawfish omelet.
The best use I've seen for the restaurant's breakfast selection is as an ersatz kids' menu. Parents who come here for early dinners of Thai curry and spicy, cool beef salads while their young children happily plow through $5 orders of pancakes and waffles seem to have discovered their own version of fusion dining.