Banana Blossom Thai Cafe
2112 Belle Chasse Hwy.
Gretna, LA 70056
Napoleon's Ratings - ***/*****
New Orleans seems to have taken to Thai food well, and there are now Thai restaurants all across the area. Many serve fairly uniform menus, or at least feature the same standard dishes. Banana Blossom has these standards too - the pad Thai, the tom yum soup, the green curry -- but it also departs from this script enough to make it stand out, and it does all of these dishes very well.
Finding Banana Blossom is a bit of a problem. It's in a narrow slot in a strip mall set back far from the street behind a wide parking lot, and the signage is not great. Look for the Winn-Dixie supermarket next door and you'll find it. The dining room is pretty utilitarian. It's a clean though bare space where it feels as though tables were carted in and fixtures were installed and then the doors were opened for business. A few contemporary design touches and lighting gives it a hint of modern style.
This is a small place with the feel of a family-run restaurant. Service is friendly and low-key. Don't expect any big sales pitches from the server, but you can count on helpful explanations of unfamiliar dishes.
A cup of tom yum soup, with its citric, lemongrass broth, is the default first course for many people at Thai restaurants. But it's well worth taking a closer look at other appetizers here. The spicy clams are a great place to start. You get a large pile of them, served in the shell with a truly hot garlic and basil sauce that begs to be sopped up with the buttery roti bread on the side. Marinated spare-ribs are fried crisp and come with chili sauce for dipping while the avocado rolls in fresh rice paper make a lighter start. The larb, a cool salad of finely-ground beef, fresh herbs and toasted rice, could be a light meal in itself.
Banana Blossom does a solid job with the dishes most locals already associate with Thai cooking - the curries, the fried rice dishes, the noodle dishes -- but the most interesting choices are often on the short list of signature dishes. Don't miss the soft shell crab surrounded by steamed vegetables and floating in a thick red curry or the rainbow trout, which is wok-fried with a basil and garlic sauce. The chiang mai noodle dish delivers a delicious tangle of crisp egg noodles hovering over an aromatic yellow coconut curry and the large soups can be entrees in their own right, especially when you ask the kitchen to add noodles. Get more of the roti, the Malaysian-style flat bread, to dispatch the rest of the broth or sauce with these dishes. Those spicy clams mentioned above are also served with noodles as an entrée. My one request here would be a stronger hand with the spices. I got the impression the kitchen holds itself back in deference to Westerner palates, but this is Louisiana after all. We can handle - and we crave - the heat.
This is one of the rare Asian restaurants where it's smart to save room for dessert. Try either rendition of fried bananas - one coated with a tempura crust and the other in wonton wrappers.
Banana Blossom has a short list of cocktails, wine (including sake) and beer, though the nonalcoholic beverage list is more interesting than usual. The Thai-style iced tea is sweet and creamy with a dose of half-and-half, and Thai iced coffee made the same way.
Most lunch dishes are $8, most dinner entrees are $10 and most of the house specials are $12. This means Banana Blossom can be a place for an inexpensive family meal or an affordable date.
The artful presentation of solid Thai dishes in such a laidback setting makes this place an unexpected treat. In inexpensive, easy-going and you can either play it safe with the familiar dishes or sample the specialties for a different experience.