Junior’s Faces the Chaos
Tough times don’t create character, they reveal it. Just a few months after opening Junior’s, a neighborhood eatery on Harrison Avenue in Lakeview, the coronavirus delivered its devastating nationwide blow. Luckily for the team at Junior’s, owners Nick Hufft and Lon Marchand found a way to pivot. Their dining room became a staging ground for pickup orders, and windows opening out onto the sidewalk served as take-out friendly hand-off portals. Along with their food, the drinks program found a way to thrive with its steady sale of frozen cocktails augmenting the family-size pickup dinners. A visit during the crisis revealed customers dutifully queued up at six-foot increments awaiting their go-cups of icy liquid relief. “The restaurant industry – we persevere,” co-owner Hufft said. “People in the restaurant industry are fighters.” In the darkest of times, Junior’s had found a way to survive.
Prior to the chaos, Junior’s had already taken root as an independently owned family-friendly option on a bustling stretch of Harrison Avenue. Taking over the space formerly occupied by Cava, a sleek remodel turned the downstairs into an airy, light filled contemporary space softened with plants. The upstairs bar provides an edgier, nightclub vibe with balcony accommodation. Upstairs is 21-and-over, and kid-free. “I have kids,” Hufft said, “But sometimes you can get a babysitter and it is nice to go somewhere where there aren’t any kids right?” he said about Junior’s split personality. Junior’s offers the best of both worlds.
Junior’s evolved out of Nick’s casual, college-friendly establishments in Baton Rouge, which is where he got his start. It is at its heart a neighborhood joint. It is grounded in comfort food but plays a bit loose, offering up a global range. Chef Brett Monteleone heads up the kitchen. Crowd-pleasers include a smashed burger, its patty honed through years of R&D with the LSU crowd. “Back in Baton Rouge I started cooking with a trailer outside of bars,” Nick said. “I started with pre-ground beef and it evolved to single chuck to chuck/brisket to a chuck/brisket/short rib blend.” The “Korean Philly” presents thinly-sliced ribeye steak simmered in spicy-sweet bulgogi sauce, caramelized onions, and that finishing touch of Americana – white cheese whiz. Some of the global influence looks to Asia –chicken and chili steamed buns are excellent – as well as the Middle East. Shawarma is featured on their family menu and “we’ve dialed in a good hummus over the years,” Nick said. Roll in the kid’s menu and the spicy chicken sandwich, and this is a place that has something for everyone.
Chef Monteleone’s impact is most seen on the family style dinners, which rotate daily and allow for broader creative expression. Take for example his “Curry Fried Chicken” as well as seafood specials inspired by nearby Lake Pontchartrain and its Bucktown outposts. Dessert is relatively basic, with a bread pudding, as well as a selection of Gail’s Ice Cream from a sister establishment. Grownups might rather save those calories for the drinks program, which features an array of draft beers and a short but impressive list of craft cocktails. Kids, adults and everyone in between will find something here to like.
Another neighborhood favorite to consider is The Company Burger. Its downtown location plays to young professionals, whereas its Freret Street location draws the family crowd. Regardless of whichever one you go to, excellent on-point burgers and malts are sure to please. Less talked about but equally good is the fried chicken sandwich, and seasonal produce is often featured on market-driven salad and veg options.
Note: This article was composed during the coronavirus pandemic when Junior’s was operating with a reduced capacity. The author dined there prior to the pandemic and also during it when they offered a take-out and delivery menu.