Kitschy buildings in the middle of normal surroundings — like the Corn Palace in South Dakota or the Beer Can House in Houston, Texas — may be nothing more than roadside gimmicks. But Pagoda Cafe has taken a diminutive, pagoda-shaped building (once home to a dry cleaning business) and elevated it from neighborhood oddity to one of the best breakfast joints in New Orleans.
The global flavors and multicultural atmosphere that permeate Pagoda seem effortless and natural, with a menu that speaks to both the Australian and Indian backgrounds of co-owners Dan Etheridge and Shana Sassoon. Dollar for dollar, it's one of the finest budget breakfast and lunch spots in the city, with almost all items well under $10.
In a city known for its mercurial weather, operating a space with outdoor-only seating is a gamble. Fortunately, it pays off for Pagoda, which has an atmosphere like a cosmopolitan, well-catered picnic. Waves of people in Birkenstocks and combat boots, some with well-swaddled babies, flow in and out. Others work on laptops, lattes in hand, under the protective cover of giant umbrellas.
The menu is as quirky and unexpected as the temple-shaped trappings, and it has two particularly off-the-grid delights: flat whites and cottage cheese. The first, an Australian coffee drink that's recently gained popularity as part of the third wave coffee movement, combines frothy, microfoam milk with a double shot of espresso, creating a super-charged play on a cafe con leche. Pagoda's version arrives perfectly velvety, with the milk acting as a supporting cast member to the espresso's bold, nutty bite.
Cottage cheese is the black sheep of the dairy family, far too often viewed as antiquated diet food or slopped onto a tray in a Piccadilly line. If your only memory of cottage cheese involves the bland, low-fat variety served in an elementary school cafeteria, Pagoda offers a version worthy of reconsideration. The large curd, slightly salty creaminess of cottage cheese is swirled with an herbal dollop of arugula pesto and colorful pops of marigold-colored cherry tomatoes, as if every ingredient was gleaned from the garden that morning.
The breakfast pastries could sustain a small bakery unto themselves. There is a delightful stuffed popover that combines the sweet, tropical flavor of guava with a wedge of cream cheese en croute sprinkled with glistening raw sugar. Pagoda carries its pastry-making skills over to the lunch menu with a dense sausage roll — an Australian favorite — featuring pungent mouthfuls of Terranova's green onion sausage wrapped in flaky dough as thin and delicate as tissue paper. The kale, garbanzo bean and feta turnover has an unexpected but welcome back-of-the-throat spice but would benefit from fewer beans and more feta.
Pagoda's array of sandwiches and salads is largely suitable for vegetarians (and vegans, with a little tinkering) without sacrificing flavor. The Indian banh mi's stack of pickled, fermented and glazed vegetables held together by a thin swipe of tart chutney is bountiful, and it makes a square meal with the (optional) addition of sliced hard-boiled egg. A crostini-style plating of salmon mousse on grilled Bellegarde Bakery bread gingerly topped with acidic capers and red onion is a smoky, decadent steal at $7.
Pagoda simultaneously stands out and fits in to its Caribbean corridor neighborhood. During bustling Sunday brunches, it hosts live, low-key bands playing music from Africa, Brazil and elsewhere, and it hosts occasional after-hours reggae dance parties. It's not hard to imagine Pagoda Cafe someday expanding its hours to include an equally fresh, laid-back dinner menu.