Lime Leaf Thai Eatery Honors Beloved Mama Thai, Taking Over Bucktown Location

Source: Lime Leaf Thai Eatery

A Bucktown restaurant is working to continue a family legacy and honor a beloved sister. Lime Leaf Thai Eatery opened last month at 200 Metairie-Hammond Highway.

The location is the former home of Mama Thai, the beloved restaurant run by Pannee “Mama” Varnishung. Varnishung passed away last summer, and her sister Rita Nethongkome and Chef Nick Nethongkome opened Lime Leaf with classic Thai dishes that Mama Thai regulars came to love.

Rita and Chef Nick have a lifetime of ties to the restaurant industry. Together the couple owns a chain of restaurants, Sushi Siam, and owned and ran Sawasdee Thai Restaurant in Mandeville until Nick’s sister took over.

Chef Nick Nethongkome started his career in New York at the famed restaurant Le Cirque and was the first Thai chef featured in the New York Times. The oldest of six, Nethongkome started cooking around Bangkok, eventually making his way to the United States, cooking French food at some of New York’s most well-known restaurants.

Rita Nethongkome grew up in the restaurant industry and got her start at her family’s Thai restaurant on the Westbank, Mai Tai, and Bangkok Cuisine in Mid-City. With the help of her husband Nick, Rita helped Varnishung get Mama Thai off the ground. 

Source: Lime Leaf Thai Eatery

“When Mama Thai first opened, Rita and Nick were commuting to Mandeville to operate Sawasdee and help get Mama’s restaurant up and running,” general manager and partner Patrick Pratumrat explained. “They were living with Mama in Lakeview.”

Last year, when Varnishung got sick, Rita and Nick began taking on more responsibilities at Mama Thai and worked to keep the restaurant open. 

Rita was initially reluctant— Varnishung has two children of her own, and Rita believed they should take over the business (Varnishung’s daughter Diana Chauvin-Galle ran La Thai on Prytania St. from 2008 to 2018). With the blessing of Varnishung’s children and the help and encouragement of Patrick, Rita and Nick began putting their own touches on the restaurant and did what they could to keep it going.

However, when Varnishung died, the future of Mama Thai was up-in-the-air. That changed when the couple began receiving feedback from their staff and customers.

Patrick said, “The landlord wanted an answer about what we were going to do because prospective buyers were interested in the building. The customer base wanted us here and most of the staff wanted to stay. That’s when I talked to Nick about him and Rita taking over the space.”

With that, Lime Leaf Thai Eatery was born with a name derived from Kaffir Lime, dried leaves that are the cornerstone of many Thai dishes.

“The food at Lime Leaf is a combination of Mama and Rita, because they have a similar style,” Patrick said. “And Nick brings his own spin to the menu. We want authenticity, but he adds a French and Cajun spin to some of the dishes.”

Source: Lime Leaf Thai Eatery

Menu highlights include Laab Gai, a salad with Isan-style minced chicken with fresh herbs, spices, and lime juice; Red Curry with red curry sauce, coconut milk, bamboo shoot, carrots, bell peppers, and basil; Nam Tok (Waterfall) Pork, grilled marinated pork, fresh Thai herbs, tangy lime, and Jasmine rice.

Lime Leaf’s specialties include Khao Soi, a dish that originated in Northern Thailand. Lime Leaf’s version features coconut curry broth soup, chicken drumstick, crispy and soft egg, noodles, fried onions, mustard greens, and Thai Herbs; and a favorite from the Mama Thai menu, Crispy Cubed Duck, crispy fried duck confit, shrimp mushroom, scallion, sweet and savory sauce, and Jasmine rice.

And the restaurant gives a nod to Bucktown’s seafood connection with its Thai Trio, a dish with a basil base that features scallops, shrimp, and crawfish and is topped with fried Asian eggplant.

The Nethongkomes want to continue the rich food history for which the family is known and since the opening, they’ve happily welcomed new customers and Mama Thai’s regulars. Most importantly, Lime Leaf shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for Mama Thai but as a continuation of Varnishung’s legacy and the family’s story in the New Orleans food industry.

Patrick said, “We want Mama’s spirit to carry on in the food, but we want to start a new chapter as well. We want to carry on the family’s reputation.”

Rita added, “I’m proud to say I’m Mama’s sister. She was legendary—everyone knew her name. We want to honor her; it’s why we do this.”

Lime Leaf Thai Eatery is open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The restaurant is closed Sunday.

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