New Orleans East: 7011 Read Blvd.
Algiers: 3600 MacArthur Blvd.
One of the five or ten best Chinese restaurants in the annals of New Orleans dining, the Jade East’s original New Orleans East location was several steps above the other 100 or so Chinese restaurants of its day. This began with its handsomeness, in a time when most Chinese dining rooms were either stark or overloaded with golden dragons, red wallpaper and similarly corny decor.
Even more impressive was its kitchen. The Jade East not only had a menu full of the new-to-New Orleans Szechuan and Mandarin cuisines, but it was the first Chinese restaurant here to explore Hunan cookery. That style is as exciting as any, with its array of sauces balanced just so between pepper and sweetness. Calling it Chinese barbecue is not far from the mark, although it doesn’t quite catch the elegance of the sauces.
The owners of Jade East understood the concept, though, and served its customers stunning food. The menu’s range was broader than it appeared at first. Hunan beef was very different from Hunan pork, which in turn was nothing like the Hunan chicken. And here was Hunan lamb, one of several lamb dishes on the menu–at a time when lamb in any form was a rarity in local Chinese dining. The lamb dish was a particular triumph, with the hottest peppers in Jade East’s repertoire.
Reading over the reviews I wrote of Jade East in the 1970s makes me yearn for those days, and of Chinese dishes we find rarely now, if at all. River Shiang pork, for example, was a brilliant dish that straddled the divide between Szechuan and Hunan, with a serious admixture of garlic to the peppers and sugars, and some interesting mushrooms to boot. Chicken velvet’s sauce was made with egg whites, mushrooms, ham, and crabmeat, and proved that not all the dished were flaming with heat.
I don’t have to read the old reviews to remember how good Jade East’s fanciest dishes were. That was true from the outset of dinner, with an elegant hot and sour soup, piled-high shrimp toast and crisp-at-the-skin fried dumplings. You’d go on from there to the best moo shu pork in the pre-Trey Yuen world, or a spectacular edition of Peking duck, which had not yet descended into the mockery of itself that the dish is now.
If only it persisted into the current era. But Jade East had a head-on collision with the future. The promise that New Orleans East would be another Metairie, with the enormous Plaza shopping mall as its center, would not be fulfilled. The houses and especially the apartment buildings being built were decidedly less affluent than the earlier Eastern neighborhoods. Latter-day residents didn’t (couldn’t) support the many excellent upscale restaurants in the East (i.e., Crozier’s, Ro-Je, and Jade East). Or the shopping mall, for that matter.
Meanwhile, the Chinese restaurant community found itself in a landslide of price competition, in which a five-dollar complete Chinese dinner was thought of as the maximum. Jade East couldn’t serve its food at those tariffs. By 1990 its goodness was much diluted.
To escape the downturn, the owners opened a second location in an upscale part of Algiers. (I always thought they should have called that one “Jade West.”) But the oil-services businesses that underpinned many West Bank neighborhoods suddenly tanked. That caused a mass extinction of restaurants over the river, taking down even five-star places like LeRuth’s, Le Chateau, and Willy Coln’s.
Perhaps Jade East could have survived anyway, but by then they were also competing with Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese restaurants–none of which even existed when Jade East was in its glory years. All of them were coming on strong both in New Orleans East and the West Bank–Jade East’s very redoubts. Its days were numbered.
It’s all a memory now, albeit a very tasty one.