There is a practical reason why Mid-City is called by that name. As the story goes, in the early days of the neighborhood’s development Hibernia Bank decided to open a branch on the corner of Canal Street and North Carrollton Avenue. One little problem was that the bank didn’t know what to call the neighborhood. (Presumably “Drained Swamp,” which is what the area was at one point, would not suffice.) A company contest was held to decide and one employee noticed that the intersection was about equidistant between the river and the lake, so he suggested what would be the winning entry.
Through the years, the corner has been a busy one, filled with traffic and commerce – the stuff that would make restaurateurs want to hang a sign in the vicinity.
Culinarily, Mid-City’s post-Katrina growth has been encouraging despite two losses on the high end. One was Christian’s, the Galatoire’s-like grand restaurant located, appropriately, in a former church. The business hasn’t returned and the building remains closed. The other was Chateaubriand, Chef Gerard Crozier’s ambitious experiment with offering an elegant French Steak House. The site, at least, is occupied now as the home of a Little Tokyo restaurant.
Elsewhere, where there was a restaurant before there’s one now, though in some cases with a different owner, name and style – the most notable being the building that once housed Michael’s Mid-City Grill. The lovable burger joint at Canal and North Scott streets is now the home of the elegant Café Minh, Chef Minh Bui’s tribute to elegant Creole Asian Cuisines.
These days, the most talked about spot is the Ruby Slipper both for its food and design. The café is located in what was never a restaurant but a struggling grocery store on the corner of Cleveland and South Cortez streets (right down the block from Mandina’s). Owners Erich and Jennifer Weishaupt are a couple of neighborhood activists whose presence is certainly being felt in the neighborhood; she’s the head of the neighborhood organization, he’s a developer who’s doing some tasteful restorations and conversions of old properties. In terms of café architecture, the Ruby Slipper is a masterpiece, including salvaged elements from demolished buildings. What was once an expressionless grocery is now a lively café, with a bar, two dining rooms a busy kitchen and the fragrance of percolating coffee.
And that leads to the food side. The coffee fragrance is especially appropriate since the Slipper specializes in breakfasts and Sunday brunches, plus weekday lunches and is also a coffee shop. (No dinners served here. Time to rest.)
True to the activist nature of the Weishaupts, the “bottomless” cups of coffee aren’t only made from locally roasted beans but also “Fair Trade Certified.” Latte, as well as coffees in other forms, is also available. Breakfast choices include a tempting selection of egg dishes such as the Three Little Pigs omelet made with Applewood smoked bacon, sausage and ham with Swiss cheese.
Among the brunch items are the ever so Southern shrimp and grits and Migas, a Mexican scrambled egg dish combining onions, tomatoes, cilantro, pepper jack cheese and spicy chorizo sausage served over housemaid tortilla chips.
At lunch, the signature sandwich is The Ruby Slipper Club combining bacon, slow-roasted turkey breast, Black Forest ham, arugula, tomatoes, homemade guacamole and Swiss cheese, served on brioche.
Drinks from the bar can be imaginative. With breakfast, try the Ruby Slipper Mimosa splashed with antioxidant-laden pomegranate juice.
Californian Chef Michael Beasley has done an innovative job creating a menu that is eclectic with touches of local sensitivity. Leslie Manuel, who uses the kitchen after hours for her own baking operation also provides some tempting confections worthy of a coffee house. There is a real esprit here as reflected in the wait staff, which is efficient and very personable.
Neighbors are loving the idea of having a breakfast and lunch place within walking distance. Others are finding the place worth driving (or taking a streetcar) to. When the Slipper first opened, the joke was that it would benefit from Mandina’s overflow. With time and reputation, the flow might work in the opposite direction.
Unlike the Ruby Slipper, which is located in a building that has never housed a restaurant, the location for Sailors Seafood & Oyster Bar has been the home of three different food purveyors – and that’s just since Katrina. First there was Rooster’s and then the curiously named Momma Mia’s Hot Burgers and now, where an outside banner assures that there’s “New Management,” is this neighborhood seafood restaurant.
Oyster bars have mostly been found downtown or in the French Quarter, never in Mid-City. Here the bi-valves are available raw, broiled or the house special: Sailors Flaming Oysters baked with spinach, artichoke, Parmesan cheese and bacon. The rest of the menu includes the expected fried and grilled seafood dishes plus poor boys and salads. The house specials offer an enticing Crabmeat Pie plus three fettuccini dishes with blackened shrimp, blackened chicken or Alfredo. Start with a few oysters on the half shell (and the seasonal purists among you should remember that we are less than a month away from the return of the “R” months) plus a platter of something grilled or fired with a chilled beer on the side, and the experience can be worthy of a city celebrated for its seafood. The place is casual with dining inside, at the bar or at an outside table. There you can search for a pearl while considering that a post-meal dish of lemon ice at Brocato’s across the street would complement any seafood dish.
Located next door to Brocato’s is Taqueria Guerrero Mexico. The name makes no secret of the restaurant’s fare but perhaps doesn’t emphasize enough that the place isn’t Americanized but true to what you might find in an inland village in Mexico. This is about as real as Mexican gets, including a sometime overly loud widescreen TV at which laborers on break might be watching a soccer match or, if you’re lucky (or perhaps unlucky), the latest Spanish language reality show.
Strictly speaking, the taqueria isn’t brand new, it has been around for more than a year but I include it because the menu has gotten much better. The tacos are, at best, routine. Fortunately, there’s a very full and savory enchilada but the showstopper is a dish that carried me, willingly, into the past. Castillio’s, a restaurant that once stood in the French Quarter was famous for its mole poblano – a baked chicken dish topped with a tangy bittersweet chocolate sauce. The dish is a true reflection of the Aztec and Mayan cultures and the influence of the indigenous chocolate bean, particularly as dishes created with it were popularized by the Spanish. La Taqueria’s version isn’t fancy but burss with a dance of tastes. Served with beans and rice, it’s a splendid dish.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available at the Taqueria. The service can be spotty but the blue-collar ambience is authentic – a reality show unto itself.
Ed. Note: Jay Forman who regularly writes this column was off this month.