New Orleans’ Street Food Scene
Cuisine with curb appeal
Carnival season and street-friendly foods would seem to make natural partners. Yet generic carts selling Sysconian corn dogs and nachos dot our parade routes, leaving bad tastes in the mouths of a city that deserves better. But we can take heart from the burgeoning indie food truck movement, which continues to gain traction, and now we can also welcome two brick-and-mortar newcomers that offer up snack food favorites from around the globe.
Booty’s Street Food in Bywater is one. Inspired by street foods from around the world, think of it as small plates with a street food focus. Owned by Nick Vivion and Kevin Farrell, with chef Greg Fonseca at the helm in the kitchen, Booty’s draws on the universal appeal of the stick, finger and cone-consumed edibles.
“Street food is interesting, inexpensive and filling,” says Vivion, a travel and technology journalist and filmmaker by trade, as well as a self-described street food geek. “It is just a fun way to eat, and we want to capture that here.”
The space is sparse and contemporary. Originally a pharmacy, the 150-year-old building underwent a full renovation. The finished product gets softened by sanded lathe paneling on the walls and a striking pressed tin ceiling. It complements the feel of its neighbor Maurepas Foods just around the corner, but Booty’s cuisine takes flight whereas Maurepas hews close to home.
The menu culls street-food favorites from around the globe. Chef Fonseca, formerly chef de cuisine at Rio Mar, is a great fit for the concept. His Thai Handroll offers lightly fried lemongrass shrimp over a tangle of green mango salad in a banana leaf cone. The Yucca Mofongo, a Puerto Rican-inspired yucca fritter stuffed with roasted pork and house-pickled peppers, is a favorite of Vivion.
Other good choices include the Kushiyaki-style options from Japan. Grilled on bamboo skewers, these include lightly marinated delicacies such as shrimp in a spicy chili glaze and a particularly good pork belly version – my personal favorite.
Almost all items ring in at under $10, with several going for $6, but portions can be small and diners should be wary of the “Tapas Trap” in which those little plates can quickly add up. Diners looking to stretch their dollar might try the Banh Mi, a Vietnamese poor boy stuffed with pork belly, paté and meatballs around which you can build a filling meal.
Drinks include a short list of 15 beers including Smithwick’s Red Irish Ale and specialty cocktails. “Street food is kind of made to be eaten with a drink,” Vivian points out. “A lot of the more assertive flavors go great with a beer.” They also make a terrific horchata, almost a dessert in itself, and are one of the few places in town to offer Stumptown coffee.
If Booty’s takes you around the world, Mais Arepas in Central City takes you to Colombia for some comfort food you won’t find anywhere else in New Orleans. Owner David Mantilla, a former partner at Baru Bistro & Tapas, went back to his roots to open his “Colombian Creole” arepas destination in late 2012.
“This is the kind of food I grew up eating in Cali,” Mantilla says. “I wanted to bring this here because it was something that we just didn’t have in New Orleans.”
The focus is on arepas, a versatile dish that starts with a premise of white cornmeal cakes that can be stuffed with just about anything.
“Colombians eat these all the time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Go there and you will find little stands on the street. There are sweet arepas, there are savory ones – they can have just about anything in them.”
Mantilla’s traditional versions include the Cerda, filled with pulled pork, ripe plantains, pickled onions and cotija, a firm cow’s milk cheese used as a garnish. The Chicharepa is stuffed with fried pork belly, lettuce, puréed avocado and aji – a flavorful hot pepper sauce that’s an essential condiment to Colombian cuisine. The Carnicera features grilled skirt steak, red bean spread, plantains and avocado, and meatless options include the Fanny, with sweet plantain, mozzarella and avocado.
“Most of the arepas I have on the menu are traditional, but there are a few that I gave a personal twist,” Mantilla says. These include the Marinara, filled with grilled shrimp, a citrusy slaw and avocado, and the Buenaventura with sautéed shrimp and green and red peppers in a garlic and white wine sauce.
Despite the essential component of the cornmeal cake, Mantilla takes pains to ensure that each arepas has its own personality. Meat prep is handled in a variety of ways – grilled, slow roasted and braised – to provide a range of textures. Extra condiments and homemade sauces served tableside allow diners to fine-tune them to their tastes. Also, Mantilla’s arepas are grilled rather than fried, making the flavor of the corn more pronounced.
Along with arepas, there’s a list of appetizers including empanadas, yucca fritters and patacones – mashed green plantain cakes topped with grilled steak, chicken and shrimp. There are also a handful of traditional Colombian stews and entrées, including his Bandeja Paisa – a yardstick dish for Colombian cuisine and a favorite of area expats. This platter starts with Colombian-style red beans seasoned with pork belly and white rice and green and sweet plantains on the side. “You also get fried pork belly, grilled chorizo and grilled skirt steak, as well as a side salad,” Mantilla says. Putting it (literally) over the top is the fried egg draped over the rice.
Food trucks, although not covered in this piece, share DNA with the restaurants described here. SliderShak typically parks outside the Bridge Lounge on lower Magazine Street, and Taceaux Loceaux can often be found parked near the Kingpin or Dos Jefes bars, to name a few. For more information about this scene, check out NolaFoodTrucks.com and look for the selection of trucks and other alternative dining options to expand over the course of 2013.