Chill Out Cafe
729 Burdette Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
Asian fusion was a big deal in dining circles at one point, though it never really caught on in New Orleans. Chill Out Café has its own rendition of fusion, but it's a much different concept than mixing French and Chinese or any other such idea. This small, inexpensive Maple Street café functions as both a diner serving American breakfast standards and a Thai restaurant with the casual classics of that beautifully fresh cuisine, plus a few other Asian dishes in the mix.
Everything about this place is laidback. It's housed in a former cottage with a small, pleasant deck wrapping around two sides. Inside, there's an open, diner-style kitchen running half the length of the dining room, and a collection of perhaps ten tables. It doesn't look much different from a food court alcove or even a coffee shop, but that impression vanishes when the food begins showing up.
This is essentially a family-run diner, and the waitresses have the friendliness of people who hope you'll come back. The language barrier can be an issue at times, but wall-mounted posters showing photos of all the dishes help set expectations for what you might be ordering.
An attentive eye to presentation and excellent values help Chill Out stand out among the better-known Thai restaurants. The fresh rice paper spring rolls, a Vietnamese favorite, are sliced and attractively stacked over a combination of sweet and spicy sauces. Shumai dumplings have the delicate taste of handmade noodle and a minced mixture of pork and chicken bursts through the top. The same shumai go into a meal-sized soup with large shrimp and a clear, light broth.
The pancakes and omelets on the breakfast menu are fine, but the best eating here is from the Thai side of the menu. There's a much-better-than-average pad Thai and curries with satisfyingly spicy sauces. Most entrées start with mounds of rice or noodles with sauce and then it's up to you to pick beef or chicken, vegetables only or the surprisingly-good seafood mix of squid, crawfish, large shrimp and tiny scallops. The kitchen adds thoughtful touches, like tangles of shredded cabbage or carrot or cucumber for visual appeal and substantial fresh crunch.
Some of the standard Asian-restaurant desserts are here, like panko-crusted, fried cheesecake.
There is no bar, but it's possible to BYOB. The real treats on the drinks menu are Thai iced tea, sweet and creamy with a dose of half-and-half, and Thai iced coffee made the same way.
With few dishes exceeding $10 and a BYOB policy, this can be a place for an inexpensive family meal or an affordable date. Portions are not huge but they certainly suffice and are appropriate for the price.
The artful presentation of solid Asian dishes in such a laidback setting makes this place an unexpected treat. I would not recommend it as a breakfast destination, since nothing I tried from that side of the menu really stood out. But the addition of waffles, egg dishes and pancakes opens up all sorts of possibilities for families dining together, with the kids getting the reliable thrill of breakfast for dinner and the adults picking their favorite casual Asian standards. Chill Out Café is an unusual hybrid that sometimes fits the bill perfectly.