An inauthentic tropical roadhouse: That’s how chef Sophina Uong describes her raucous New Orleans restaurant Mister Mao. “We do global food from all around the world,” she says. “Not honing in on one specific country, but we lean into Mexican, Southeast Asian, Indian; we just really put our own twist on it.” Nothing, the menu promises, is “off limits.”
When the restaurant opened in July 2021, “everyone was ready to just party,” Uong says. “Not because it’s New Orleans,” but because everyone wanted a place to hang out with their girlfriends. “There’s a lot of screaming, a lot of bridal showers, lots of glitter and sequins, which I’m really stoked on,” Uong says. She sees Mister Mao as celebratory, and part of her goal in opening the restaurant was to create a space where members of the hospitality industry could afford to have a good time. “We wanted a loud, boisterous place,” she says, the kind of place “you can stop by and it [isn’t] so expensive that you [can’t] come more often than once a year.”
The dish that arguably best sums up Mister Mao’s dedication to fun and affordability is Meat on Tiny Sticks, bite-sized pieces of lamb served on little skewers. (“We have quirky names for things, like we call burrata ‘the White Claw of cheese,’” Uong explains; the dish is also referred to as Sichuan-style toothpick lamb.) The lamb is quickly fried and seasoned with Uong’s Toothpick Fire Dust, a sweet, spicy, citric acid-spiked powder. The combination was inspired by the cumin lamb noodles at New York City’s Xi’an Famous Foods. “That was my first introduction to lamb and cumin and chiles like that, like in a very aggressive, powerful, meaningful way,” Uong says. Any Fire Dust left over from the recipe can be used in a myriad of ways: It works on any meat, in jambalaya, as seasoning for fried green tomatoes or crispy fried shrimp, and stirred into bloody marys.
Where those cumin lamb noodles are slick and oily — worth taking your time with, with plenty of napkins in hand — these skewers are more easily snackable, making them ideal for, say, a Super Bowl party. Just be careful if you’re drinking, Uong notes: “I have witnessed people eating the whole toothpick. Sometimes we just have to remind them.”
Sichuan-Style Toothpick Lamb Recipe
Makes approximately 80 toothpick-sized skewers
For the Toothpick Fire Dust:
2 ½ tablespoons freshly ground cumin powder
1 ½ tablespoons freshly ground arbol chile
1 ½ tablespoons Sichuan red pepper flakes
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
1 ½ tablespoons salt
½ teaspoon finely ground citric acid
For the lamb skewers:
2 pounds lamb (preferably shoulder)
1 ½ tablespoons freshly toasted ground cumin powder
1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
1 ½ tablespoons gluten-free tamari
1 ½ tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
Vegetable or other neutral oil
Chopped cilantro for garnish
Skewers or toothpicks
Step 1: Make the Fire Dust by combining the toasted cumin, ground arbol chile, Sichuan red pepper flakes, sugar, salt, and citric acid in a bowl. Transfer to an airtight container. This will keep for approximately 2 weeks.
Step 2: Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel before cutting. Slice the lamb across the grain into approximately ½-inch-thick slices and then cut into 1-by-2-inch bite-sized pieces. Combine the cumin, cornstarch, tamari, and rice wine in a bowl, then add the cut lamb and mix well.
Step 3: Marinate the lamb for at least 30 minutes and then skewer with toothpicks.
Step 4: Heat up a frying pan with a little vegetable or other neutral oil (I use about 2 tablespoons) over medium-high heat. Fry the skewered lamb pieces in batches for about 5 minutes each or until nicely browned and slightly crisp. Turn the skewers as you fry to ensure even browning; add more oil if your lamb pieces are lean.
Step 5: Place the cooked lamb on a serving plate. Season with Fire Dust and garnish with cilantro. Serve warm.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa