3800 Williams Blvd.
Kenner, LA 70065
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
In the realm of local Chinese restaurants, there are American-Chinese places, which reliably serve familiar dishes with sweet sauces and lots of fried wontons, and then there are those rarer finds that serve food more akin to what you might get in China, or at least in a well-provisioned Chinatown. The Kenner restaurant Little Chinatown is definitely in that second category thanks to its menu of Cantonese specialties. There's also plenty of familiar American-Chinese fare here, but those with a sense of adventure and a taste for something different will find so much else to try.
Anybody can see that this building spent some time as a Pizza Hut franchise, with its distinctive red, crimped roof still evident. Inside, there's a mix of booths and tables (just like a Pizza Hut) and a collection of Chinese art. It's a pleasant, neat, family-run place. There are many tables of people who look Chinese, which is always a good sign when you're looking for real Chinese food.
Little Chinatown feels like a family-run restaurant, with service to match. It's welcoming and easygoing. If you're really after something different, don't let the waiters steer you away from Chinese specialties, as they sometimes try to do, and press them for more details about a dish. The menu has very short descriptions that often don't do these dishes justice.
While you can get eggrolls, spring rolls and fried oddities like spongy, mounded "fish balls," the great way to start a meal here is with soup. These are often meal-sized, and as a first course you can share one around the table once they supply a ladle and some smaller bowls. The duck and dumpling soup is a great choice, made with a clear, rich duck broth, roasted duck breast, dark, leafy Asian greens and pork-filled dumplings. The vegetable soup is loaded with pea pods, carrots, baby corn, etc., but also comes with a side plate of fried rice squares, which you add to the bowl to soak up the broth and bulk it all up. The mango shrimp sounded appealing, but turned out too sweet, with a heavy dose of a creamy sauce over the top.
It's important to note that you can still find Gen. Tso's chicken and other such recognizable dishes here -- important not because these are great but in case you want a back-up plan to the real menu specialties or want to convince a reluctant dining companion to come along. What I recommend are those other, less familiar dishes, the whole fish steamed with ginger, the big, steaming clay pots filled with chopped beef short ribs in an intense onion and garlic gravy, or even the congee, a thick rice porridge filled out with duck, pickled egg and other savories. This is the traditional cooking that makes Little Chinatown worth seeking out. Anything listed as "salt toasted" is in fact fried and coated with an exciting blend of garlic, green onions and jalapenos. They do this to shrimp and soft shell crabs to great effect, and also to quails and frog legs. These are spicy dishes, but that's more the exception to the rule here. Dishes are highly-seasoned, often with garlic and pepper, but they don't have the burn of other cuisines. Always check the specials board, which is written in Chinese characters with only the briefest English translations. That's where you'll find dishes like stir-fried lobster or snails with black beans and garlic.
Bubble teas, a frozen, often fruity drink with gumball-sized orbs of tapioca, is the best bet for a sweet finale. But usually, after dinner here no one has room.
Little Chinatown has a full bar, with a very basic wine and beer selection, plus Chinese teas.
This place feels like a bargain. While some of the specials range higher, most dishes here are around $10 or less and are intended to be shared. Two people should be able to do dinner with drinks for $50. The lunch menu has $7 combo deals as well, though these do not show the restaurant at its best.
Adventurous eaters will find a lot to explore across this menu and in its specials, which includes some dishes that seem to come out of a cable show on exotic foods. In fact, it all comes from deep Cantonese tradition and offers a glimpse of how people enjoy their culinary customs in that part of China. With plenty of options for the not-so-adventurous eater, Little Chinatown is a good well-rounded restaurant and well worth keeping in mind for meals off the standard American-Chinese menu.