Dining Along Lower Magazine Street

Lower Magazine is a much different creature than its Uptown counterpart. The blocks between Jackson Avenue and Coliseum Square are scruffier than the sleeker, more polished stretches farther up. But while this hodge-podge collection of independent storefronts makes for an interesting milieu – including some neat new casual food and dessert spots – it would be best not to mention anything to Aidan Gill about his neighborhood being scruffy.

When J’anita’s opened in mid-December, it nested easily into the fabric of this eclectic neighborhood. A low-key and leisurely establishment, J’anita’s harbors no grand ambitions. “We are aiming to be just a neighborhood joint,” says Craig Giesecke, who co-owns J’anita’s with his wife, Kim. Their son Stu serves as manager, making it a family-run enterprise. “I’d say 80 percent of my customers are regulars from the neighborhood.”

It took eight months to refit the space for use as a restaurant, as it had formerly been used as a tattoo parlor and upholstery shop (not concurrently). Such a funky pedigree is in step with the kitchen-sink approach of the place. Craig draws upon his experience preparing and selling smoked cheeses, along with other stints in the restaurant industry spanning both wholesale and kitchen operations, in cooking up his ’que. For a period of time he also operated a barbecue trailer catering to workers in Lakeview immediately following the storm.

Using hickory, he smokes up a nice pulled pork, which arrives shredded, tender and moist. The accompanying barbecue sauce is interesting, reminding me of a rogue Remoulade, thanks to a sharpening with horseradish. This tweak especially compliments the beef brisket. Aside from the barbecue you will find mostly simple and straightforward munchie food, good for hangover cures and laid-back lunches. To supplement the barbecue, try the ’Tater Salad, built upon a foundation of smashed, skin-on red potatoes and tangy mustard. Additionally, the silky Kim’s Guacamole is a must for any of the nachos combinations.

A popular redfish sandwich comes loaded with bacon, grilled onion, tomatoes, Caesar dressing, Feta and romaine lettuce. “The sign says Breakfast, BBQ and Beer but I sell as much fish as I do anything else,” Craig says. “That fish sandwich is a hell of a seller.”

Whatever you order, expect to see a trio of animal crackers marching across your plate, a kitschy flourish cribbed from a waterfront joint in Panama City Craig frequented while sailing. “It is just something fun. It crossed my mind to use goldfish but their flavor is too distinct. Animal crackers are bland and therefore more flexible.” Also, Craig adds, “They are easily removable.” Prices are very reasonable and there’s a pared-down kids menu as well.

It is nice to see a place do well and these days Stein’s Deli seems to be booming. Since opening in February 2007, the menu has been reinforced and expanded as the establishment steadily gains traction. New Orleans has seen an explosion of choices for healthier, lighter sandwiches lately, finally shaking loose the caloric chokehold of Poor Boys and Stein’s has followed suit. You can find lighter fare here, such as Panini sandwiches, but a better reason to come is for a satisfying Reuben with hot corned beef and quality Swiss on rye. Or my personal preference: the Rachel sandwich, which trades the corned beef for hot pastrami.

The coolers are stuffed with an impressive collection of imported beers, carefully chosen to get the most out of limited shelf space. Libations have also been rounded out with a selection of wines. The grocery section is well-stocked with hard-to-find items both extravagant, such as whole black truffles, and not so extravagant, such as Tastykakes – the Philly equivalent of Hubig’s Pies.

Spearheading the porcine assault (note that this isn’t a kosher deli) is a tasty and multi-pronged attack sandwich called the Ode to Nueske’s, featuring the boutique brand’s bacon and ham. Among the lighter sandwiches, the Kelly is good: Unctuous prosciutto and cream cheese are loaded onto house-made ciabatta, a couple of tart green apple slices helping to balance out the sweetness and fattiness.

New York-style deli staples such as pickled tomatoes, half-sours and garlic dill pickles are here, along with H&H Bagels. You can also get Knishes in variations such as white cheddar and potato and onion. Fans of mysterious chef Pete Vasquez can find his pâté for sale here as well.

There is also a little sweet to go along with the savory this side of Magazine Street at Prince Michael Chocolate, which Lyn Neglia opened last fall. So far, her Spicy Drinking Chocolate has generated the most buzz. Served in a demi-cup, the rich brew takes a cue from its Mesoamerican history and comes seasoned with chipotle pepper, along with some cinnamon and a touch of vanilla. With a thick texture akin to molten ganache, fans of the double-rich style of hot chocolate á la City Bakery in New York will enjoy this concoction.

Offerings here are short but sweet, mostly hand-rolled truffles along with a couple of molded selections. Lyn uses 100 percent chocolate for her ganache – the highest percentage of cocoa mass available. When blended with the other ingredients, this creates an extremely rich foundation for her creations. “I’m using almond milk, organic coconut milk and hazelnut milk to make the ganache,” she explains. “That is how I’m able to give the 100 percent chocolate a really creamy, truffly taste.”

Among the truffles is a nice Chipotle, Cinnamon and Chicory morsel. In the Pinot Noir truffle, the velvety notes of its namesake wine float through the ganache. Another truffle, the Roast Pistachio, comes infused with rosewater and rolled in chopped nuts – flavors suggestive of Middle Eastern desserts. “I like to use flavors that trigger emotions,” Lyn says. “With the Ginger truffle, the sharpness of the ginger first clears your blood and then the rich chocolate just floods your senses. Also, the pistachio and rosewater are flavors believed to encourage love.”

She also spins a small selection of sorbets in-house, which recently included a Spicy Chocolate, a Chocolate Espresso and a simple Dark Chocolate. Additionally, fans of iced mocha will find that the ice cubes used are made from frozen coffee. “It makes it big difference because as your ice cubes melt your drink won’t get watered down,” Lyn says.

The shop is looking to package its spicy drinking chocolate in ready-to-go containers. “Along with retailing it out of our own space, we’re looking to get it into a couple of high-end markets,” Lyn says. Also in the works is a selection of savory and spicy homemade mole sauces packaged to go. “I’m from New Mexico and I love working with spices and chocolate. Since over 94 ingredients can go into a mole, with mole I’m able to take chocolate to a whole new level.”

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