The small cottage on the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Jena Streets in Uptown New Orleans has undergone several changes since a husband-and-wife team opened their restaurant there, Dick & Jenny’s, in 1999. It’s had different owners, different looks (albeit nominally), and served various cuisines. But it’s never seen a transformation quite like this.
Chef Sophina Uong and her husband and business partner William Greenwell open their new restaurant in the building at 4501 Tchoupitoulas Street, called Mister Mao, on Saturday, July 24. For most, it will be unrecognizable from the homey, wood-paneled bistro that served Uptown couples on date nights for two decades, but its joyful, eclectic vibe and equally eclectic menu signals an exciting new chapter for the space.
“Since we’ve started working on the place, we’ve gotten to meet people who used to come eat here, and they tell these really amazing stories,” Uong told Eater. “It’s made the space feel that much more special.”
It hasn’t made it any easier to get to this point, though. The significant renovation was accompanied by all of the common New Orleans roadblocks, on top of a pandemic. But with the help of New Orleans businesses and artists, including architecture firm Studio BKA and design company Union Studios, Uong’s vision for a fun, spunky tropical roadhouse has come to life.
Uong, who is Cambodian-American, worked with local artist Margie Tillman Ayres, of Margie and the Moon, to help with the tropical part. Ayres coordinated colors — soft pinks and green with lots of gold trim — and painted the mural in the main dining room, which depicts, as described by Ayres, “A pair of fierce Indochinese tigers surrounded by Cambodian birds and tropical flora in a vivid jungle scene.” Ayres calls it a tribute to the “strength and determination required of an AAPI female chef in the largely male-dominated world of American cuisine.”
The open-kitchen layout by Studio BKA is fronted by a six-seat, 1940s-style diner chef’s counter, that’s topped with a retro green facade made by Union Studios. Uong, who leads the kitchen, and Greenwell, who runs the bar, wanted to move the bar to the back of the building where the entrance is on Jena Street, making for a sort of progressive experience. The bar area, which precedes a narrow hallway leading to the main dining room, is meant to reflect the couple’s fondness of Miami — there’s a jungle palm design carved into the bar, and a varied assortment of art and mirrors found by Uong, mostly at thrift stores.
“We always wanted to have a funky place,” Uong says of the couple’s vision for Mister Mao (which is named after their cat). “And we wanted to create a variety of experiences.” That’s why the bar’s in the back, with a separate design and vibe, an area the couple jokingly calls “the boy’s cave, where the guys can sneak off during dinner to go do shots.” They envision the main dining room to be more suited for a date night, or for a celebratory girls night out, Uong says. The chef’s counter, they hope, will welcome solo diners and other customers particularly curious about the inner-workings of the kitchen.
And what’s happening in the kitchen is certainly worthy of up-close observation — the pair uses words like “eclectic” and “inauthentic’ to broadly describe the cuisine, which combines flavors from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and India, among other global influences. The menu consists of five categories: “Drinking Snacks,” with dishes like the Banchan Mao, or bites of pickled fruit, lacto ferments of “imperfect” produce, and dried shrimp mochi; “Foods We Love to Share,” with escargot Wellingtons and Alabama corn pudding; “You Don’t Have to Share,” for entrees like pork shanks, wagyu beef, and masa dumplings; “These Bring Us Joy + Hellfire Heartburn,” devoted to spicy dishes like habanero octopus aguachile and pani puri; and intriguingly, “Here Comes the Chuck Wagon,” which offers frequently rotating small plates served via dim sum-style roving carts. Sample dishes include pierogi-style dumplings made with coconut and chile; duck confit served with cucumber and Kashmiri chile oil; and bacalaitos, or cod fish fritters.
Then there’s dessert. New Orleans pastry chef Sarah Cotton has created one of the most exciting dessert menus in town right now, with a version of the cold Indian dessert falooda, made with Mountain View Orchard peach sherbet, vermicelli, basil seeds and jellies, and orange blossom milk; a dark chocolate tart made with black garlic, malty peanut brittle, coconut cream, and candied cocoa nibs; and perhaps most excitingly, an ever-changing platter of mignardises, or bite-sized desserts, which could include pineapple glazed gingersnaps with urfa chile, white chocolate tahini “crunch” bars, or hibiscus lime meringues.
On nights they’re closed, Uong says, the restaurant will host guest chefs and pop-ups, like Hoda Tahmasebi’s Persian Lime pop-up and Vivi Nguyen’s Radical Joy Bakery. They’ll also host guest bartenders and other specials nights at the bar; all of which is part of the aim for Mister Mao to serve as more dining hub than restaurant. Eventually, Uong and Greenwell want to add weekend brunch, and maybe only be closed one day a week.
When it opens tomorrow, July 24, Mister Mao will serve dinner Thursday through Monday, 5 to 10 p.m.