Diners looking for Red's Chinese won't find a flashy neon sign or hand-scripted letters pointing them in the right direction. Instead, a giant red square hangs over St. Claude Avenue, luring curious diners to experience the city's most playful and inventive new Chinese food.
The restaurant occupies a low-slung, ground-floor space that's seen several recent incarnations. Chef Tobias Womack's restaurant feels like a David Lynch-designed hideaway, with ruby-colored lighting and juxtaposed strip-mall Chinese restaurant baubles and thought-provoking photography. It's glitz-meets-gaudy for those with an adventurous spirit and sense of humor.
Local ingredients are abundant on the menu, but the influence of San Francisco chef Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese, where Womack once worked, is clear. On the menu, the presence of a riff on kung pao pastrami — a Mission Chinese favorite — is a nod to the trailblazing restaurant. Womack's version adds Louisiana flair, with thickly cut hunks of bell peppers, onions and celery swelling into a fireworks display of color and crunch against the smoky, melt-in-your-mouth bits of pastrami.
Fermented black soybeans (douchi) appear in the kung pao pastrami dish and other dishes focusing on vegetables, adding small-but-mighty bursts of salty, piquant complexity. Red's Chinese knows that the devil is in the details when crafting dishes that challenge and enliven diners' taste buds. The commitment to these supporting-role ingredients — preserved lemon, pickled green peppercorns —ensures dishes' flavors twist on the tongue in unexpected ways with each bite.
Crawfish rangoons put crab counterparts to shame, with a lemony-bright kick that makes the crustacean and cream cheese combination taste like fresh pockets of a sun-kissed, seaside boil. But the accompanying Creole and horseradish mustard is too overpowering for the rangoon's delicate flavors.
A hearty bowl of ginger scallion noodles will make you rethink reaching for a bowl of pho to ward off your next cold or hangover. The dish's sinewy strands of pasta wiggle through a malty, earthy black vinegar sauce that retains the zippy, cleansing punch of fresh ginger. The breezily named Swallow Cloud soup is another masterfully rendered cold-weather warmer. The soup's nutty, woodsy broth is a knockout — almost rich and nuanced enough to be a dish unto itself. A pudgy, chewy dumpling filled with ground chicken and pork bobs like a tugboat in the middle of the soup, and flecks of fried onion and greens make their presence known spoonful by spoonful.
A trio of fried rice dishes are sure to please those looking to push the envelope of more familiar Americanized Chinese items. Hawaiian fried rice is perhaps the most intricate, with a potpourri of non-crispy fried chicken bites, tangy pickled pineapple, chewy bacon and a delicate hit of curry among more traditional fried rice ingredients.
At times, the attempt to fuse tailgate-ready sensibility and Chinese street food goes awry. Buffalo chicken feet seem to have all the makings of an outside-the-box game-day favorite, but instead are overly complicated in their execution. Eating chicken feet already is a game of hunting and pecking for edible bits, but the reward is a unique full-bodied, condensed chicken flavor. When slathered with tangerine-colored Buffalo sauce, the feet lose their nuance and simply become ineffective sauce vehicles.
True to its kitschy aesthetic, portions are generous and easily packaged in familiar red-and-white Chinese takeout boxes for refrigerator snacking.
No matter what message your fortune cookie reveals at the end of a meal at Red's Chinese, experiencing such trippy, delicious dining experience already is good fortune.