Katrina had a profound effect on the restaurant scene in New Orleans. In the years that followed a profusion of establishments filled niches that were underrepresented or even non-existent. But it was about more than just places to eat; whenever a new place opened it gave something back, creating gathering spots in neighborhoods that desperately needed them. Such is the story with El Pavo Real, a Mexican restaurant on the corner where Fontainebleau, Napoleon and South Broad all converge.
Owned by Chef Lindsay McLellan and her husband Mario, El Pavo Real was a bet on a neighborhood struggling to rebuild. It wasn’t a sure thing; it faced a lot of initial opposition to return the real estate to commercial zoning. But it paid off once it opened, swiftly becoming a destination for both neighborhood residents and prominent chefs who eagerly embraced its menu of coastal Mexican cuisine informed by Oaxacan pedigree and peppered with Creole influence.
McLellan fell in love with Mexican cuisine while working in New York. “Growing up in New Orleans I wasn’t a big fan of Mexican cuisine, because we didn’t really have any real Mexican food here,” she explained. “But when I moved to New York I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with guys from Mexico. I got to know them and their culture and their food – I saw this direct line between Mexican and Creole cooking. Just the soul of it – a lot of the ingredients and techniques are similar. I thought, ‘If I could bring this home people will recognize it as something familiar but also something special.’”
The cheery light-filled space features a checkerboard tile floor and is lined with Latin artwork. A visit begins with a basket of complimentary spicy popcorn. Consider starting with ceviche, smoothed out and sweetened with tomato, creating a dish that is a hybrid of traditional ceviche and old-fashioned shrimp cocktail. “You see this dish in beach towns in Mexico,” McLellan said. “It gives the palate a break from the acidity of traditional ceviche.” The tamales feature freshly steamed chicken in masa with mole sauce – a defining component that appears elsewhere in the menu. This essential sauce features four different chilis, various seeds, nuts, and spices that get charred, cooked down and blended into a smooth paste. “I love the mole sauce,” McLellan said. “My husband makes that. Every note is deep and rich and earthy with a bit of spice and sweetness.”
Entrees include “Caldo del Pollo,” Mexico’s version of chicken soup, a restorative broth spiced with chilis and jalapeno and brightened with cilantro and lime. Loaded with chicken, green beans, mirliton and other ingredients, it falls in the same class of soups like Pho, Yaka Mein and other hangover-friendly cures. Also recommended are the carnitas, braised pork shoulder rubbed down with achiote and chili paste. Off the taco menu, the “Pescado Frito” feature battered and fried fish with chipotle mayo, pickled onion, jalapenos and slaw. The shrimp tacos, glazed with tamarind and chipotle, stand out as well. All tacos are served on corn tortillas made in-house.
Along with lunch and dinner, El Pavo Real opens early and offers breakfast. Specials rotate through constantly – be sure to check the board for seasonal dishes like a recent Creole tomato gazpacho. A full bar is offered as well as non-alcoholic treats like horchata.
El Pavo Real, 4401 S Broad St., Broadmoor; 266-2022; B, L, D Tues-Sat. B, L Sun. Closed Mon. ElPavoRealNola.com
MEET THE CHEF
Chef and owner Lindsay McLellan met her husband Mario, a native of Mexico, while working in New York. While there she also fell in love with the various cuisines of Mexico and learned how to cook them. The duo relocated to her native New Orleans in 2005. She worked for several years at the Spanish hotspot Lola’s, eventually running the kitchen, and also at Susan Spicer’s globally-inspired Mondo. But along the way she kept her eyes open for a place she could call her own. After moving to Broadmoor, she noticed the spot that would eventually become El Pavo Real for rent and made her move.
South Market Mexican
Otra Vez, another love letter to Mexican cuisine by chef Akhtar Nawab, recently opened in the South Market District. The contemporary space is the perfect backdrop for his ambitious modern Mexican menu. Recommended dishes include “Queso Fundido,” intriguingly sweetened with honey. The elegant bar makes it a hot spot for happy hour as well.