Chances are you have heard New Orleans referred to as the ‘northernmost city’ of the Caribbean. The adage usually applies to the city’s mélange of cultures, music and in particular its multilayered cuisine, informed by its colonial past and flavored by successive waves of immigration. But for this piece I wanted to look at a couple of places that put a specific focus on island cuisine. Not the upscale ones, like Nina Compton’s acclaimed Compere Lapin, but more casual spots which blend culture, community, entertainment and more.
It is Friday night at 14 Parishes, a new Jamaican spot just off of Lee Circle in Central City. A DJ is setting up her equipment on the stage in the dining room while a group of women share appetizers over copious drinks at a long communal table against the far wall. A family gathers to catch up while their kids clamber up on the stage and are greeted with smiles. The overall feel is convivial in an easygoing way, which is just what owner Conroy Blake aims to provide.
“In Jamaica we call these kinds of places cookshops, rum bars or jerk stands,” Blake says. “But whatever you call it, there is always music and always people gathering with one goal in mind – to have good food while having a good time.”
14 Parishes is a family affair which blurs the line between bar, restaurant and music club. Blake is the owner while his brother Charles heads up the kitchen and Charles’s wife Lauren handles the front. The Blakes got started in the restaurant business while in Atlanta, where they missed the Jamaican food they grew up with. “We’d try to get good jerk chicken but when we got it was either super-spicy or didn’t have enough flavor – it was always a miss,” he recalls. “So we decided to make it ourselves.” The Blakes brought their Jamaican authenticity down here to New Orleans when Lauren, who was displaced by Katrina, decided to return home.
The restaurant takes its name from the 14 Parishes that make up Jamaica and the individual parish names are featured on the menu as well. For starters, consider the mini-patties, a kissing cousin of the empanada, filled with curry chicken, beef or veg. The Ilan Slice, a tortilla piled high with jerk chicken, bell pepper and jack cheese, is quintessential bar food. For main dishes, the Portland — jerk chicken on the bone with a choice of white or dark meat — is their most popular choice. The chicken, rubbed and grilled until it is burnished with a mahogany hue, is served alongside a terrific dipping sauce. Charles makes the rub with ingredients sourced on his periodic runs to Atlanta for spices and supplies, while the sauce is a concoction of Conroy’s, who came up with it when a neighbor of his wanted to eat his bbq but found it too spicy. The thin, flavorful sauce tamps down the pepper while bringing in a bit of sweetness.
Jerk Chicken at 14 Parishes
Baru Bistro & Tapas, while admittedly fusion-y, exudes an island vibe. For starters, a well-balanced ceviche features chunks of sweet potato among the cubes of drum. From the tapas menu, scoops of chicken curry sit atop discs of mashed green plantain, and mini-arepas piled with a shaggy heap of pulled pork are topped with pickled red onion. There are plenty of entrees as well, but the tapas and starters keep things fresh and exciting here, leaving even more room for the excellent bar program.
Sides include stewed callaloo, a leafy green vegetable akin to spinach. The mac and cheese is decadent, while the fried sweet plantains are like caramelized manna. Vegan dishes are a big part of the menu as well. The Rasta Pasta is a vegetarian’s delight, with chunks of carrots, bell pepper and cauliflower picking up richness from the coconut sauce. If available, consider their specials like the Whole Fish, a four-pound snapper deep-fried on the bone and drizzled with a spicy vinegar and pepper sauce. “We had a couple that came in and wanted to try it,” Conroy recalls. “I was worried that some people might get put off by the whole fish. But when I tell you they took it down to the bone, man… I tell you cats wouldn’t even come near it when they were done. They tore it down.”
14 Parishes offers a full bar as well as lots of live entertainment. Visit their website for the event calendar. The Jerk Sauce is available to purchase by the bottle as well.
Tucked away just off of Broad Street on Bayou Road is Coco Hut, a diminutive storefront that serves up island fare with flavors way out of proportion to its size. Owner Motha Natcha cooks most of the food to order on an open stove on the other side of the counter, putting out a terrific array of Island-inspired meals while engaging in conversation with her guests. The jerk chicken here is gloriously smoky, hacked into meaty bone-on chunks and served atop a bed of fragrant, coconut-scented Spanish rice. The menu, posted on a chalkboard daily, changes often but recently included grilled fish tacos and Hubig’s Pie-sized spicy shrimp empanadas, served piping hot from the fryer alongside a scorching green dipping sauce. No alcohol is served but sweet cane juice or hibiscus tea will quench the fire. Coco Hut is cash-only and has limited seating, but a cluster of alfresco tables expand its capacity, weather permitting.
1638 Clio St., Central City
D Tues – Sat L Fri & Sat.
Coco Hut Caribbean Restaurant
2515 Bayou Rd., Gentilly