Asalad for lunch can be light and it can feel refreshing. Rarely does the dish actually deliver its own buzz. But that is one of the attributes of a salad called lahpet. It’s built around fermented tea leaves, which lend the kick behind the beguiling pungency of the dish.
Lahpet is a staple back in its native Myanmar, the modern political name for Burma. And in New Orleans, lahpet is the namesake dish of a pop-up eatery with unique ties back to the source material for its Burmese flavor.
Lahpet has been making regular appearances around town, usually setting up in coffee shops. Now, it has a more stable residency, thanks to a different take on the pop-up concept.
Lahpet runs a regular weekday lunch service at Milkfish, the Filipino restaurant in Mid-City. While Lahpet serves its small, abundantly fresh menu of traditional Burmese dishes at lunchtime, Monday to Friday, Milkfish continues to roll out its full Filipino menu at dinner, every night but Wednesday.
Got that straight? Yes, this arrangement does have the potential for some confusion, but it also pairs two outlets for robustly flavorful, previously unrepresented cuisines in our city under one roof.
It’s a uniquely cooperative endeavor that both Lahpet and Milkfish are feeling out as they go. And it fits the character of each eatery, which have developed a bit differently from the restaurant industry norm.
Chef Cristina Quackenbush began Milkfish as a pop-up, borrowing restaurant space from a succession of supportive chefs around town. Since Milkfish went permanent at its own Mid-City address, she’s been paying her gratitude forward by regularly opening the space to other new pop-ups.
Lahpet was one of those pop-ups and this eatery comes with its own back story.
Mark LaMaire, a musician and host on radio station WWOZ, started a nonprofit called One World Family after traveling in northern Thailand and witnessing the plight of children living in the Burmese refugee villages along the border region there, a consequence of decades of strife and civil war in Myanmar. The organization raises money to help shuttle children to schools and to provide uniforms, school supplies and similar assistance.
LaMaire learned to love traditional Burmese cooking during his visits to the region, and he formed Lahpet as a way to share it back in New Orleans while raising money for One World Family programs. A portion of the restaurant’s proceeds fund that work.
He now runs Lahpet with Eva Sohl and Blake Smithson, and they hope to develop the concept into a permanent, standalone restaurant. The Milkfish arrangement is a step toward that, and a trial run.
“We want to see if it’s good for us, good for Milkfish and good for the nonprofit,” LaMaire said. “We hope we can build here.
At Lahpet, their menus are organized around fried snacks, like samosas stuffed with spiced potatoes or split pea fritters; intricate, jungly papaya or ginger salads; and curries draped over catfish or chicken or duck or even fried boiled eggs. They sometimes serve shan tofu, a Burmese style of tofu made from chickpeas instead of soy beans. Mohinga, a catfish and chickpea chowder, has made appearances.
The natural starting point is also the concept’s namesake, that tea leaf salad. Here it’s served in two different styles, both centered on soft, dark bits of leaves. They have an intense, sour savor, and a moist earthiness crossed with a fermented edge.
For the traditional salad, the star ingredient is simply surrounded by portions of fried and roasted nuts and seeds to mix and match for different bites. The more composed house salad adds cabbage and tomatoes and citrus for a more layered but less intense taste. Both versions are refreshing and actually invigorating, thanks to the caffeine in the leaves.
Lahpet serves a short roster of about eight dishes any given week, with variable specials and a few unchanging mainstays. A table of four could realistically tackle an entire menu in one sitting. The menu is inexpensive, with most dishes ringing in under $10. Most of the menu is gluten free, and most dishes are also vegan or can be prepared that way on request.
Lahpet still functions like a pop-up within Milkfish. You order at the counter from menus that change weekly.
In the evenings, Milkfish rolls out its full Filipino menu, with its own traditional blend of Spanish, Chinese and Indonesian cooking. There’s hearty chicken adobo, crisp, narrow lumpia eggrolls, rich stews and lighter stir fries, lots of pork and its own namesake dish, milkfish, a dense, highly flavorful Pacific catch.
Put them together, and you have a fascinating test case in restaurant cooperation, one that’s bringing tastes of the exotic and something new to the table.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.