Eating in summer requires some minor adjustments, precautions really, since I can’t hide behind extra-large sweat suits and wool muumuus in this heat. Naturally, I like to opt for smaller portions and lighter, cooler fare like seafood, salads and ice cubes. Though I’ll always have a special place in my heart for crabcakes in remoulade and chocolate molten lava cake, the Spanish cuisine about town is where it’s at this swimsuit season. ¡Caliente!
Nothing epitomizes light summer fare quite like ceviche, citrus-marinated seafood that cooks itself so you don’t have to. Rio Mar, in the Warehouse District, makes the best in town. Their seasonal summer ceviche has bits of sweet mango that cuts through the tartness of the tender fish, and leaves you far more refreshed than a visit to your neighbor’s lemonade stand. Chef Adolfo Garcia offers some amazing seafood dishes that won’t break the bank, and ever-changing specials such as the seared wahoo with fruity Israeli couscous I tried on my last visit. The succulent five-hour roast pork loin served “latino style” is only $19 dollars and comes with fried plantains, avocado, black beans and rice, and a small mound of supple onions cloaked in vinegar, which made me feel like I was delving into some North Carolina barbecue, a flavorful cure for the summertime blues. Rio Mar is also home to one of the best desserts in New Orleans, the warm banana empanada served with decadent dulce de leche ice cream. They might not set fire to it at your table, but it will definitely light up your life.
In the Riverbend, the dimly lit Café Grenada is home to a delicious glass of sangria and a well-crafted list of cold and hot tapas, including plenty of vegetarian options and forgiving prices. The Manchego and roasted red pepper empanada is a must try; the dough flaky and reminiscent of a sturdier croissant, with the creamy sheeps milk cheese and soft peppers perfectly balanced inside and ever so melty. The Calamari Al Ajillo is worth a go, too; the squid is prepared very tenderly, which is a welcome vacation from its ubiquitous rubbery and deep-fried brethren. The calamari bathes in a strong garlic broth, and if you have no plans to visit a kissing booth afterward, your bread must surely be dipped too. Café Granada also serves Coca, a savory pastry similar to pizza, and in this case a tapas-sized pizza, which is a common staple in Catalan cuisine but seemingly difficult to find in the U.S. They serve larger entrées as well, including paella, but the true gems seem to be hidden in the tapas menu. Bring friends and share the wealth.
Lola’s, located on Esplanade in Mid-City, is home to summer’s antidote, Ajoblanco, a chilled almond soup that’s a creamy dream. This savory Andalusian soup, served with slivers of pear on top to complement its saltiness, is my preferred gazpacho. Lola’s is such a charming restaurant, from their incredibly friendly service, open kitchen and tiny, packed dining room with quirky artwork to the way they serve their homemade sangria in cute, recycled bottles for $12 (you get about four glasses out of it). It has the most amazing garlic butter in town. Most people swear by the garlic shrimp appetizer too, but the garlic mushrooms are a feisty counterpart. If you’re not that enthused by garlic, the seafood paella never disappoints, with tender chunks of fish, mussels and calamari tucked in moist yellow rice. Traditionally, paella is eaten straight from the pan or paellera, thus the name of the dish. Lola’s serves a majority of their creations in cast-iron skillets large enough to feed an entire table or small enough to please your cat. The Andalusian lamb stew, Calderata, is also a must-try, with sapid medallions of meat that taste similar to a roast my sister made last Christmas involving a large bottle of wine and a lot of praying. You probably need to wait an extra 15 minutes to go swimming after this dish. Lola’s only takes cash, and plan on bringing a drink or two for the wait.