The Harahan and River Ridge communities offer the typical comforts of suburbia: green space, quiet neighborhoods and lots that can accommodate homes larger than a double-shotgun. They also offer other perks, like independently owned and operated restaurants. Diners have several good spots serving local seafood and casual upscale dining from which to choose. In addition, Hillbilly BBQ, which has been covered in a previous column, serves up some of the city’s best barbecue.
Charlie’s Seafood in Harahan comes with a pedigree: Chef and Owner Frank Brigtsen, who grew up in what’s now River Ridge, is one of New Orleans’ best-known chefs. His foray into casual dining came not so much from a desire to expand as it did from a personal motivation to preserve the heritage of the restaurant.
“Charlie’s opened in 1951,” says Brigtsen. “My earliest restaurant memory is of being here in a high chair, so I have a lot of fond memories.” After Hurricane Katrina, the grandchildren of the founders sold the establishment. A couple of tenants came and went, and eventually it was empty. “Although my wife, Marna, and I never really wanted another restaurant, we kept passing by it and it was just tugging at us. One day we got the numbers, made the deal and here we are.”
The menu downshifts from Brigtsen’s, his eponymous restaurant in the Riverbend. While clearly a neighborhood seafood joint, it nevertheless shares Frank’s DNA. Louisiana Popcorn Rice, with its nuttier, more pronounced, flavor is used in lieu of the ordinary stuff. The tartar sauce is homemade, down to the pickles. Each seafood has its own unique batter and separate fryer. “There is nothing foreign there; just what people expect plus a little more.”
To that end, the fare features the expected poor boys, gumbo, fried platters and boiled seafood in season. However, little touches, like mustard wash, dresses up the catfish filets and set it apart from the pack. More intriguing menu choices include the Dirty Boy, an appetizer of dirty rice mix sans rice smeared on a pistolette. “That comes from the kitchen at Brigtsen’s,” Frank says. “We served dirty rice there, but would keep the meat mixture separate from the rice before serving so it didn’t get mushy. When the cooks came in to prep for the evening they’d be hungry and grab a pistolette and fill it with meat mixture to snack on.”
More complex fare, like a terrific shrimp étouffée, is offered, along with a short list of top-shelf entrées that wouldn’t be out of place at Brigtsen’s, such as Grilled Gulf Fish with Shrimp and Oyster Bordelaise, along with his “Un-Fried” Seafood Platter. Daily specials mix things up, such as a recent Backyard Crab Boil sauce that went over grilled drum. Garnished with wedges of deep fried crab-boiled potatoes, all the flavors of a backyard boil came together in this one dish.
Also, make sure to order the snack-friendly calas, a historically important rice fritter delicacy dating back 200 years. It would also be a shame to miss out on the Cane River Meat Pies, made from scratch by Brigtsen alum Janet Caldwell. Food and community is what Charlie’s is about and is precisely what Brigtsen is seeking to preserve.
Further along down Jefferson Highway is Mimi’s Restaurant. Tucked away in a River Ridge strip mall, the space rises above its nondescript exterior to offer an upscale-casual white tablecloth experience in a dining room of muted colors and large picture windows. A favorite of area residents, the restaurant has been around for 35 years. The present chef and owner David Whitmore took it over eight years ago, and runs the show with his wife, An. The menu features Creole-Italian cuisine with an emphasis on fresh seafood and organic produce. A favorite feature of locals is the weekend specials, when Whitmore rolls out more contemporary choices to give regulars something new. “Recently we recreated our wedding menu,” Whitmore says. “We had Five Spice Cornish Hen with Louisiana Jasmine Rice Pilaf, along with an Orange-Habañero Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Black Beans and Southwest Corn Salad.”
Off the regular menu, try the Shrimp Remoulade Salad with its blend of creamy avocado, fresh shrimp and tangy namesake dressing. The Shrimp Victoria Pasta gets heartiness from Applewood-smoked bacon and a Parmesan-Reggiano cream sauce, with peas and mint enlivening the flavor. The Bone-in Pork Chop and the Balsamic and Honey Glazed Duck are popular with regulars, Whitmore says. As a technique, Whitmore enjoys employing vinegars in his sauces (“The acidity highlights the flavor of the food”), as evidenced in the duck dish. If you’re hungry for more traditional Creole-Italian fare, the tender Veal Meatballs in red sauce will satisfy your urge for this comforting food.
On the website, diners can subscribe to a weekly email newsletter highlighting upcoming specials and cocktails. At press time Whitmore was considering additional menu changes, along with the possibility of Sunday brunch.
Finally, if you’re looking for a grab-and-go poor boy or need to pick up some fresh seafood for holiday meals, check out family owned and operated Bobby’s Seafood. Housed in a converted gas station, this joint has the feel of a neighborhood seafood shack and offers a terrific selection of fresh seafood along with prepared foods. The lump crabmeat is perfect for making stuffed mirlitons, and boiled shrimp and stuffed mushrooms are cued up and ready to go if you need party supplies. Shrimp poor boys are good, as is the barbecue beef. Get there early if you want to eat in, as seating is limited to a couple of two-tops. A line often stretches out the door at peak times, evidence of a high-quality poor boy shop.