Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar
1340 S. Carrollton Ave
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
Little Tokyo has evolved into a mini-chain of local Japanese restaurants, but its Carrollton-area outpost is quite different. The full name spells out some of its specialties - noodles (especially in soups) and small plates, a mix of traditional and whimsical Japanese-style appetizers. Not mentioned in the name, but key to the format here, is karaoke. There is a rig up front by the bar and a network of private rooms that groups can rent by the hour to wail away while waiters ferry in more noodles, small plates and sushi.
A few restaurants have cycled through this Carrollton address, though many will likely remember it as the former Cuco's Mexican Café from years back. The interior has been thoroughly redone for this new concept, with a good deal of the dining room now taken up by private karaoke rooms. These are like lounges furnished with sofas and coffee tables, with the karaoke gear front and center. Rooms, and their corresponding hourly prices, range from small chambers for a few people to dens large enough to accommodate a sorority mixer. The conventional dining room is comfortable, with large booths and a broad bar. When the parties are rocking in back, their muted singing is audible in the front dining room, so you may hear some chanting and choruses over your noodles and sushi.
Service can seem genuinely clueless here, and in many cases it appears the wait staff are working their first restaurant jobs. Many seem uneasy with the large menu, which is understandable given its awkward structure and design. They seem generally frazzled. I'll attribute some of this to the format, perhaps, with waiters constantly having to check on the karaoke rooms, and maybe given the party atmosphere of the place it doesn't matter all that much. This isn't the spot for an elegant meal anyway. The sushi bar can back up when lots of orders flow in from the karaoke rooms, and once I was warned of a 30-minute wait for a roll.
You can find conventional Japanese restaurant items like edamame and gyoza dumplings here, but they're surrounded by such different company on the small plates and appetizer menu sections it's hard to notice them. There's tempura-fried pickles and spicy chicken wings, grilled green onions and chunks of yellowtail drenched in barbecue sauce. When you start seeing items like onion rings and sweet potato fries, or nachos and fries covered with curry sauce, it becomes clear a lot of this is intended to provide party food for the karaoke groups.
Soups are the main attraction here. The term ramen usually brings to mind those cheap, dried noodle packets that get so many poor students through college, but in the Japanese tradition they are much more refined and interesting. Here they're served as meal-sized bowls filled with springy noodles, hearty broth and a mix of meats, vegetables and spice that you can customize per order. Load one up with bok choy, sprouts and pork and start slurping. Try the tonkotsu ramen, which has a pale-colored broth made from pork bone stock and is the most hearty of the lot. The sizzling stir-fries of yaki soba and thick udon noodles are good choices as well.
The specials, scattered around the confusing menu, have grown increasingly exotic. Spit roasted eel, for instance, is not a dish you see everyday, but it proved excellent, with sweet flesh, a crisp exterior and salty sauces on the side.
This is not the best place for a sushi experience. All the normal rolls and sashimi plates are here, but they're not done with any particular verve. You're better off adding a few of these items as sides to your soup or small plates parade than trying to make a full meal of them.
The drinks list here is longer, and more silly, than a Polynesian-style cocktail bar. There are lots of punches and "martinis" made with any conceivable combination of bar ingredients. Sake and Japanese beer are more traditional choices, but here you can mix them up for the "sake bomb," which apparently helps fuel many karaoke sessions.
It's all about how you order here. The noodle soups are less than $10 and make filling, satisfying meals all on their own. Most of the small plates are reasonably priced, but as is so often the case in this format they can really add up. In general, if you're going for soup expect a bargain and if you're going for other dishes expect a mid-priced meal of perhaps $30 per person.
Though not recommended for the conventional Japanese restaurant experience, Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar certainly makes for an offbeat evening. As a spot for a quick, inexpensive, hearty bowl of Japanese soup it's excellent, while as a karaoke party spot it really has no peer in town. If you can handle a decidedly college-oriented ambiance you should have a good time here and get to try some interesting new flavors to boot.