Fresh takes on regional Southeast Asian dishes are gaining traction on menus.

Southeast Asian cuisine is surging in popularity amid an ongoing wave of interest in food from Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, and more. Restaurants aren’t just embracing the region’s rich tapestry of flavors. They’re flexing their creativity and pulling from a diverse range of culinary influences to reinterpret traditional dishes and deliver new dining experiences for consumers. 

“What I find extraordinary about Southeast Asian ingredients is that they’re a little bit fresher, and there’s this balance of salty, sweet, spicy, and sour,” says Sophina Uong, executive chef and co-owner of Mister Mao in New Orleans. 

The former “Chopped Grill Masters” winner launched the restaurant in 2021 after spending the bulk of her career in mostly formal atmospheres. The idea was to introduce guests to new flavors through “intentionally inauthentic” cuisine that merges her Cambodian-American heritage with southern techniques and global influences. 

“I learned to cook mostly through taste memories, so maybe I use a little more spice than a country asks for,” she says. “Since you’re never going to make everyone happy, I just decided to cook the way I want to cook.”

Mister Mao’s ever-changing menu starts with snacks like deviled almonds and plantain chaat, an Indian-inspired twist on classic bar nuts, and lechon kawali, a Filipino-fried pork belly dish. From there, guests can choose from playful categories like Foods We Love to Share and You Don’t Have to Share for “untraditional takes on traditional dishes.”

There’s also a section called These Bring Us Joy + Hellfire Heartburn. It’s home to one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, pani puri. The bite-sized Indian street food consists of a hollow semolina puff stuffed with red bean and potato masala and is finished tableside with fiery mint water. 

“New Orleanians are used to Cajun spice that has garlic powders and cayenne, but they’re not necessarily used to Southeast Asian spice, so we try to warn them,” Uong says.

While Mister Mao leans heavily on Southeast Asian ingredients and dishes, that isn’t the only region the restaurant pulls from, she adds. A wide range of cuisines from North African and Mexican to Cajun have all made their way onto the menu in one way or another. 

SEA Crab House, meanwhile, infuses Cajun-style seafood boils with flavors from Southeast Asia at its six locations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Customers choose from a variety of fresh shellfish and crustaceans, then customize their experience with sauces like Thai chili garlic, Cajun lemon pepper, and the house-favorite Southeast Asian (SEA) sauce. 

Those sauces are an even blend of Thai flavors and standard Cajun seasonings, says founder and CEO Patta Lorwatcharasophon, who emigrated from Thailand in 2007. She previously owned two traditional Thai concepts, but sold them two years ago to focus exclusively on SEA Crab House. 

“It was hard for me to scale those restaurants without Thai cooks,” Lorwatcharasophon says. “My passion was making food just like we did in Thailand, but that required a lot of training to get American cooks to meet my expectations for every dish. I started thinking about doing something different and bringing dishes into SEA Crab House that anybody in the kitchen would be able to repeat.”

Lately, she’s been expanding the menu with more items that offer a new spin on classic Southeast Asian fare. There’s a Super Kim Noodles entree made with crab meat, shrimp, clams, and mussels. It draws inspiration from Thai dishes like pad thai and pad see ew but is made with Japanese yakisoba noodles, which she says are easier to work with. Another recent addition is the Mekong Medley, featuring shrimp, codfish, spicy sausage, peppers, carrots, onions, Thai basil, and cilantro. 

“Those dishes have real Thai spices, but instead of a traditional Thai sauce, they’re served with a creamy Cajun sauce that’s mixed with Southeast Asian herbs,” Lorwatcharasophon says. 

Komodo Miami, the first concept to launch under David Grutman’s Groot Hospitality, attracts visitors from around the world with its “clubstaurant” atmosphere and extensive Pan-Asian menu. Executive chef Alex Chi says menu development at the South Florida restaurant centers around a “thoughtful and creative approach” to fusing global perspectives with flavors from Southeast Asia. 

He points to standout dishes like Chilean sea bass served with nuoc mam, a pungent, salty, sweet, and umami-packed Vietnamese sauce; and a beef jerky small plate with lemongrass and galangal, a staple herb in Thai cooking. A recent addition is sea bass shumai. The Chinese dumpling features fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, also called makrut lime leaves, another key ingredient from Thailand known for its intense fragrance. 

The South Florida hot spot is best known for its peking duck. The dish originated in Beijing and comprises roasted meat wrapped in a crepe and served with cucumbers, scallions, and hoisin sauce. There’s even an exhibition kitchen behind the bar where whole ducks hang from metal hooks. 

Komodo also boasts a full sushi bar, plus bespoke cocktails like the Szechuan Old Fashioned or the Shizo Fly that complement the vibrant and diverse flavors showcased on the menu. 

“Ultimately, creating new dishes while interpreting traditional Southeast Asian flavors in a unique way requires a delicate balance between innovation and respect for tradition,” Chi says. “It’s about celebrating the rich culinary heritage of the region while also exploring new horizons.” 

Chef Profiles, Feature, Menu Innovations