The humble diner stands in stark contrast to all of December’s holiday obligations, parties and functions. At a diner, one won’t find any medallions of foie gras drizzled with 25-year-old balsamic and Bartlett pear compote. No prefecture-specific beef flown in from Japan on a chartered Gulfstream V. No lettuce whose ancestry can be traced back to the Mayflower. Diner food is the quintessential comfort food. The dishes skew toward the decadent side of breakfast, and the meals are informed by warmth and nostalgia rather than pomp and circumstance. In short, they’re both a complement to and a haven from the holiday season.
Relative newcomer Fat Hen Grill in Harahan is the diner to beat right now. Chef Shane Pritchett, with a fine-dining pedigree that includes time served as executive chef at Emeril’s Delmonico, oversees a creative menu that manages the neat trick of punching things up in ways that add to – rather than detract from – the comforting roots of traditional diner food. Witness his substitution of Nueske’s-brand bacon for the regular stuff throughout the menu, along with going the extra mile in diner essentials such as in-house sausage.
The Fat Hen serves up a variety of pancakes using an egg-ier batter that’s akin to the type whipped up by my Swedish grandmother. More like a crêpe batter, it’s a bit denser and chewier, with a little more tooth, and I prefer it to the super-light-and-fluffy style commonly used elsewhere. The House Special pancake, with blueberries and crumbled pecans blended into the mix, comes with two slices of Nueske’s bacon and a butter-mascarpone spread which complements the real maple syrup. Other than the steep price for just one plate-sized flapjack, the taste is delicious. The very hungry might appreciate the house specialty, the Womelette – an omelet baked on a waffle. These come in a variety of iterations including the Easy, featuring turkey and cheddar, and the Rancho, featuring chili and cheese.
Mornings, lunches and weekends see the real rush. Try the Fat Hen for dinner if you don’t want to fight the crowds. Savory options include deliciously salty fried pickles served with a ranch-style dipping sauce and fried chicken livers served with pepper jelly. The burgers are good here as well; the beef is ground fresh, and the patties are loosely packed and flavorful. Other good sandwiches include a BLT made with Nueske’s bacon and a simple but comforting Grilled Cheese done up with havarti, fontina and mozzarella cheeses.
Those who yearn for sweets will find lots to love including Tiger Toast, made from brioche battered with cornflakes. A broad selection of pies such as coconut cream, “Fat-Bottomed” chocolate cake and other desserts like floats, malts and banana splits round out the menu. Abita beer and red and white wines are offered, as well.
Slim Goodies on Magazine Street has been “cooking with love” for several years now and has carved out its own niche on the stretch of Magazine Street between Louisiana and Washington avenues. The Pynchon-esque menu is exhaustive, with miles of text detailing the dishes. The menu sprawls across boundaries, offering up Slammers that mash up such disparate components as hash browns, crawfish etouffee, eggs and biscuits as found in the Creole version. The etouffee is pretty good and appears in plenty of other just-as-surprising places on the menu.
These unexpected combinations sprawl over of what’s essentially a traditional diner menu dishing variations of waffles, pancakes, omelets and sandwiches. Omelets such as the Chili Cheese Fry appeal to the hungover, with other mashups such as the Philly Ohm, blending a cheese steak with an omelet, tempting the same. I prefer to keep things simple with chocolate chip pancakes and a malt, but sometimes the savory side does beckon with items such as an Irishman Omelet, stuffed with shredded potatoes, provolone cheese and onions. Also tempting are good old-fashioned cheese fries.
Noteworthy too, is an assortment of vegetarian-friendly dishes on the menu, including a veggie burger. Slim’s doesn’t serve alcohol, but it does have a BYOB policy with no corkage fee and (weather-permitting) the courtyard out back is a nice place to relax. The jukebox is pretty awesome and the free Wi-Fi access is a plus as well, enough of a lure to siphon off area hipsters from nearby locales such as Rue de la Course. All in all, these elements combine to creature a uniquely New Orleans diner.
Of course, the quintessential New Orleans diner is the Camellia Grill. After being shuttered following Hurricane Katrina, it became a shrine to all things N’Awlins when it was increasingly festooned with heartfelt pleas to reopen, and homages to great times had there. It was sold to restaurateur and businessman Hicham Khodr in 2006. He updated its infrastructure while leaving the front-end essentially unchanged save for a simple freshening. The menu remained the same, the transition went smoothly, and it’s humming along as it used to, even with some of the original staff.
A person can’t really go wrong with the burgers, nicely greasy and cooked to order on the flattop grill. Their thin waffles are a popular choice, as are their massive omelets. I rarely venture outside of my cheeseburger-with-a-chocolate-cherry-freeze zone, but when I did so recently, I was rewarded with a belly-busting Doc Brinker’s Special: two hamburger patties on grilled rye bread with Swiss cheese accompanied by double sides of coleslaw and chili. My wife looked over and wondered aloud, “You don’t get fries with that?” For once in my life I answered, “I don’t think this really needs fries.” Our waiter overheard the exchange and nodded.
That put the issue to rest, until I reached over and ate her fries when she wasn’t looking.
If room allows, the pecan pie heated on the grill then served à la mode is the stuff of which memories of casual New Orleans dining are made from. Spooning in that sweet dessert and looking over the broad mix of New Orleans locals, students and tourists seated at the stools happily enjoying comfort food is what diners are all about.