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Jazz Fest Restaurants
For many festivalgoers, Jazz Fest is as much about food as it is about music. No trip to the Fair Grounds is complete without the ritual of hunting and foraging for something new to share whilst your friends hold down the fort or a patch of grass, as it were. Like what happens backstage at the big tents, feeding the fest is a tough act to pull off and takes a lot of planning, careful execution and (with regard to rain) a little bit of luck. There are, however, a handful of restaurants that are up for tackling that task, and here’s a look at a few.
Jazz Fest organizers take pains to include a wide variety of foods, with the caveat that they share fundamental DNA with our regional cuisine. This principal is particularly well represented with Bennachin’s booth at Congo Square, which serves up Jama-Jama (seasoned, sautéed spinach), Fried Plantains and Poulet Fricassee, aka “Chicken on a Stick.”
“A lot of West African food is very similar to New Orleans food,” explains Sally Tambajang, who works with her mother, Fanta, at this family-owned restaurant. For example their namesake dish, Bennachin, is a close relation to jambalaya, made with a tomato and rice base but dressed up with cubed beef in lieu of sausage or shrimp (a vegetarian version with carrots in place of meat is offered as well). “We also have Soup-ah-Kanja which is an okra-based soup very similar to gumbo,” Tambajang says.
Bennachin’s menu is drawn from the cuisine of both Gambia and Cameroon. In their cozy dining room on the quiet back-end of Royal Street close to Esplanade Avenue, you can relax with lunch specials like the Jama-Jama with Fried Plantains and Coconut Rice, which pairs well with a glass of Gingeroo, a bracingly sharp drink made from freshly pressed raw ginger.
While the Jama-Jama and Fried Plantains are prepared on site at the Fair Grounds, much of the prep for their Poulet Fricasee is done at the restaurant (“It takes a long time to skewer all that chicken,” Sally points out). Lunch specials are reasonably priced, but to explore deeper it’s best to dive into the more exotic list of full-on entrées.
The Galley on Metairie Road is a neighborhood seafood joint that also turns out the festival favorite Soft-Shell Crab Poor Boy.
Along with being one of the most popular booths, it’s also one of the most complicated to orchestrate. “Takes me to pick the hard stuff, right?” says Vicki Patania, who owns the Galley, along with her husband Dennis. “It ain’t like doing red beans and rice.”
Soft-shells are available in two seasons – the fall run and the spring run. Jazz Fest takes place right as the spring run is starting, so there’s a mass scramble for the crustaceans just as the gates are getting ready to open. “You and every other restaurant in the city wants those crabs,” Vicki says. “You gotta pay the premium price, trust me.”
They buy enough crabs to get them through seven days of good weather, but as we all know a spring storm can quickly dampen festival attendance. A rained-out day can put the hurt on a perishable stock of seafood that’s more expensive than steak.
At their restaurant location in the heart of Old Metairie, The Galley is a bustling, high-energy spot whose air is scented with crab boil and whose menu sprawls well beyond the boiled crabs, crawfish and shrimp, all of which are reason alone to go. There are seafood dinners, poor boys and full-on entrées. Your fries can be swapped out with an array of alternative sides, such as mac and cheese, grits or even broccoli if – God forbid – one feels the need to eat healthy. Fried, grilled, blackened – they do it all at the Galley. “If you can’t find something to eat here, honey, there’s something wrong with you,” Vicki says.
Vucinovich’s, a seafood outpost in New Orleans East at the intersection of Chef Menteur Highway and Michoud Boulevard, serves up some of the bedrock items of the festival – Shrimp and Oyster Poor Boys, Fried Oyster Salad and their signature Stuffed Artichoke.
“We start out from scratch with those artichokes,” says owner Rusty Vucinovich, who grew up working in this restaurant that his father built. “We make our own bread crumbs from Leidenheimer French bread, then we add seasonings along with garlic, Italian cheese and extra-virgin olive oil. Then we stuff ’em and steam ’em.”
As soon as the annual contract gets signed, he and his crew get to work stuffing. They sell about 2,000 artichokes over the course of the festival. To stage his prep for the Shrimp Poor Boy, Vucinovich buys his white Gulf shrimp during the height of the fall season and puts them away in cold storage to guarantee he has what he needs come spring.
Vucinovich got started with the festival back in 1984. Organizers needed someone to fill in for the oyster poor boy slot, and Vucinovich tried out. “They saw what I could do with oysters and then saw the ‘-vich’ in my last name and figured I knew my stuff,” is Rusty’s guess. He beat out about 30 other restaurants to get the contract, and his presence has expanded at the fairgrounds ever since.
The drive out east is worth it for the oyster poor boy alone, but they also offer plate lunches and the shell-paved parking lot is always packed with pickup trucks come lunchtime – a testament to the quality of their goods. Their muffuletta is a winner as well.
Other festival favorites available year round include the Fish Tacos from Taqueria Corona, above, deep-fried and dressed with cabbage and a spicy tarter-style sauce, along with Jamila Café’s Grilled Lamb Sausage. Crawfish Bisque from Lil Dizzy’s Café rounds out some of the savory dishes that never go out of style and are within easy reach, regardless of the season.
1212 Royal St.
Lunch and dinner daily
2535 Metairie Road
Lunch and dinner, Tues.-Sat.
4510 Michoud Blvd.