Harrison Avenue Dining
Whacked by Katrina; now it’s flooded with restaurants
For a long time after Hurricane Katrina there wasn’t much action on Harrison Avenue. Nowadays the hard thing isn’t finding a good place to eat, it’s finding a place to park. The Lakeview neighborhood corridor has boomed in recent years. Supplementing the tried-and-true burger joints such as Lakeview Harbor is a new crop of restaurants greatly expanding the scope of dining possibilities. The most recent of these to open is Cava (read more on pg. 62). Here are a few others.
Susan Spicer’s Mondo arguably served as the spark for the revitalization of the restaurant scene along Harrison Avenue. It is fitting, as she’s a Lakeview resident. “Susan always wanted to open a restaurant in her neighborhood that had a bit of a fine dining mentality,” says Mondo’s Chef de Cuisine Eason Barksdale. “We are trying to create a casual place with an emphasis on quality – just to put really good food out there for our neighborhood.”
As the name implies, Mondo draws inspiration from all over the globe. Chinese dishes such as Szechuan Eggplant Stir Fry co-exist alongside Spanish-inspired Gambas Fideos – garlic-and-sherry cooked shrimp in pimiento butter atop campanili pasta toasted to bring out its nuttiness. In another organization’s hands such an eclectic mash-up might result in chaos, but that isn’t the case here.
A few things make Mondo special. One is the breadth of the menu; there’s a broad range of dishes guaranteed to excite most anyone and diners can have confidence in their execution.
Another is their wood-burning oven. When Mondo opened in 2010 it was a relative novelty. Since then the list of places employing them has grown, but Mondo continues to be inventive in the ways in which they make use of it. Along with the expected array of pizzas, they bake off a broad range of dishes such as Roasted Mussels with Chorizo in sherry butter. “It is actually a really versatile piece of equipment,” Barksdale says. “It helps with the flow of the line, too.”
One interesting item they fire in the oven is their bialys. “A bialy is a savory Italian pastry – kind of like if an English muffin had a love child with a bagel,” says Barksdale. “We are the only place in the city you can get one right now.” Served hot with its wood-fire charred exterior it’s accompanied by a terrific smoked trout spread, similar to whitefish but creamier. This is a compellingly rustic dish that will leave you wanting more.
The menu changes fairly often, though some items tend to stay on, such as the addictive Thai Pork and Shrimp Meatball appetizer. Southern cuisine, currently in vogue nationwide, is well represented with dishes like Shrimp and Grits sharpened with aged cheddar and dressed up with an Abita Beer Creole Sauce. The Pimento Cheese Renaissance marches on with a fun option on the brunch menu: An Andouille, Fried Egg and Pimento Cheese Sandwich is served with fries redolent of crab boil. While the influence is global, Barksdale has a soft spot for Mediterranean fare. “My special menu does lean pretty much towards the Mediterranean. I really love Moroccan, Turkish and Italian dishes,” he says. These are all represented, but most important, the menu is fun.
Mondo’s brunch is terrific and flies under the radar. Egg dishes get dolled up with global flourishes, such as a recent Caribbean Eggs Benedict with Curry Coconut Hollandaise Sauce. This came served atop a carrot and plantain cake and garnished with jicama slaw. Mondo also caters to the little folk; on their kids menu there are several transitional-type dishes – like the Silver Dollar Pancakes with Steen’s Cane Syrup and strawberries – on the brunch menu that children would enjoy as well. A snack menu is available between main seatings and for late night.
El Gato Negro is one of a growing number of Mexican restaurants that offer cuisine distinct (for the most part) from the ubiquitous Tex-Mex. True, El Gato Negro hedges its bets with safe staples such as quesadillas and three-cheese enchiladas, but the best choices here are the ones that focus more on the owner’s home state of Michoacán, though the menu goes bicoastal in featuring dishes from Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula. The former would include choices like Mixed Grill Michoacán Style, with a chimichurri sauce spiced up with serrano pepper and lime, the later with sautéed Red Snapper in a tequila-spiked Pico de Gallo sauce. The guacamole, made fresh tableside, is a signature dish. Gluten free and vegetarian options are offered as well. Much of El Gato Negro’s appeal leans on their exhaustive list of tequila and tequila-inspired cocktails.
But despite all the expanded options along its corridor, Harrison Avenue at its core serves up the basics. For burger lovers, Lakeview Harbor lures diners with thick half-pound patties offered with an array of garnishes. A long list of poor boys and other crowd-pleasing items round out the menu, which has plenty for kids as well. Jaeger Burger, adjacent to Parlay’s, offers burgers more in touch with today’s artisan craze. The beef for these is ground in-house daily and the buns are buttered and griddled on the flattop. Fries are hand-cut and they also serve up a version of the French-Canadian comfort food poutine, only here they amp it up with roast beef debris in lieu of the more traditional gravy. While a broader range of choices now tempts along Harrison, some things never go out of style.
Velvet Cactus’ crowd-pleasing Tex-Mex menu and rambling outdoor patio make this Mexican restaurant a popular gathering spot. The menu is an eclectic mix of favorite dishes like fajitas, burritos, mix grill and the like. Kids will enjoy its kitschy décor and adults will appreciate the beverages.
900 Harrison Ave.
Lunch Mondays-Fridays; dinner Mondays-Saturdays; brunch Sundays
El Gato Negro
300 Harrison Ave.
Lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Sundays; closed Mondays
911 Harrison Ave.
Lunch and dinner daily
872 Harrison Ave.
Lunch and dinner Mondays-Saturdays; closed Mondays
6300 Argonne Blvd.
Lunch and dinner Fridays-Sundays;