FOR TWO WEEKENDS, JAZZ Fest crowds packed the restaurants around the racetrack.
Before the festival, though, an empty table at the neighborhood favorites, such as Lola’s or Café Degas, was as easy to find as a new refrigerator in New Orleans.
On a recent weekday, I visited Fair Grinds coffeehouse before lunch. There was no espresso or fancy tea. The owner, however, had set up a little coffeepot on the patio, switched on the free wi-fi and converted his business into a community center.
Neighbors stopped by and swapped stories about riding out the storm. I offered a few dollars for the coffee, but the owner refused.
“People have been donating everything,” he said, “so I don’t feel like I can take any money.”
The “for sale” signs dotting the half-block between Fair Grinds and Liuzza’s by the Track were reminders that not everyone could come home. The “sold” signs meant that someone would be taking their place.
At Liuzza’s, I waited for a table near the entry beside two uniformed cops, workers wearing orange safety vests and the concrete lawn jockey that guards the door.
With few lunch options in the area, the midday crowds are back to a healthy level.
The menu is smaller, but the important items remain – seafood gumbo, barbecuedshrimp poor-boys and spicy roast-beef poor-boys.
The gumbo was on everyone’s lips before they even had a bite. At one table, a man urged a first-timer to order it. At another table, a woman told her friend that she’d been waiting a year for a bowl of Liuzza’s gumbo. The spicy, reddish broth is full of sausage, dark-meat chicken and okra cooked down until only the seeds can be seen. The shrimp and oysters are cooked to order and dropped in the gumbo before it hits the table. The barbecued-shrimp poor-boy may get more press, but the Breathtaking Beef ranks as one of the best roast-beef poor-boys in New Orleans. It’s a crusty loaf with house-made roast beef, mayonnaise and enough mayonnaise and horseradish to make your lips tingle.
At night in the Faubourg St. John neighborhood, the streets are quiet. Crowds used to gather in front of Lola’s, passing around bottles of wine and waiting for a table at the little Spanish restaurant. Most regulars probably spent as much time on the sidewalk as in the seats. Lola’s now has a liquor license, although they’re happy to serve an outside bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer for a modest corkage fee. Try to linger on the sidewalk, however, and the hostess might urge you inside to a waiting table.
TABLE TALK: Food in the FauborgLola’s captures the spirit of Spanish cuisine. A few simple flavors – garlic, paprika and vinegar – are combined with little fuss. At the start of a meal here, the soft butter laced with potent garlic sets the tone. The appetizers are almost all Spanish classics. A satisfying garlic soup is nothing more than garlic and paprika simmered in chicken stock. A vinegary heap of chopped vegetables covers chilled green-lipped New Zealand mussels.
Other local restaurants serve Spanish cuisine, but Lola’s re-creates the easy camaraderie of a neighborhood bar in Madrid. It’s a little pocket of Spain on Esplanade Avenue. Lola’s is known for its paella. The quality of the dish partially accounts for its popularity. The distinctive strawlike taste of saffron was missing, but all the other elements of an excellent paella were present. A creaminess clings to each grain of rice, and crusty brown bits line the bottom of the paella pan. I suspect, though, that people also love the paella because it’s too big for one diner and encourages a table to share.
The mood is calmer across the street at Café Degas. The little French bistro always seemed like a temporary structure, even though it’s been open for more than two decades. The dining room is nothing more than an outdoor patio wrapped in plastic. Amazingly, the fragile-looking building seems to have weathered the storm with little damage. There were few customers the night that I visited, and our waiter had time to entertain us with a full bio of the staff, details about his family’s connection to Edgar Degas and littleknown facts about the restaurant’s food. He assured us that the chef cooked with only the healthiest oils and tried to include nutritious vegetables on the side. After hearing that last bit of information, Café Degas’ menu suddenly made sense. French cuisine conjures images of dishes laden with butter and rich sauces, but Café Degas’ food is more unadorned. The lamb shank was such a massive piece of meat that the staff cracked jokes about the Flintstones, but it was presented simply with toasted almonds and broccoli raab on top. The fine hanger steak was cooked on the rare end of medium-rare – perfectly French and perfect for my taste – and served with a pile of fries and steamed broccoli.
Neither entree could be called diet food, nor were they too rich to be a regular weekday meal.
A featureless FEMA trailer sits outside Asian Pacific Café, but the bright walls inside create a cheery atmosphere. Families with children devour plates of sushi and rolls in the front rooms. The childless couples seem to prefer the long sushi bar in the back.
The food used to be pan- Asian, but the current abbreviated menu focuses on Japan. Don’t miss the lumpia and pork adobo, two Filipino offerings still on the menu.
The lumpia are tight, little fried egg rolls with a woodsy taste. Adobo, the national dish of the Philippines, is pork or chicken cooked in a soy sauce and vinegar.
Asian Pacific Café specializes in boldly flavored American-style sushi rolls.
The special Bye Bye Katrina roll was covered in a creamy crab salad, filled with asparagus and cut into pieces too big to eat in a single bite. On the Stuntman roll, seared tuna flecked with black pepper is wrapped around spicy tuna and cucumber. For once, spicy tuna is actually spicy. Instead of the searing horseradish burn of wasabi normally found in Japanese food, the heat lingers on the front of the tongue. The sushi also has spice from the drop of red pepper sauce on top of each piece, and is served in a thin pool of soy sauce. The idea of sushi rice touching soy sauce would offend a purist, but it’s a concession to the American preference for soaking their sushi.
Over dinner one night at Café Degas, a friend said it was “a neighborhood restaurant without a neighborhood.” All these places were eager to welcome people back. After a few visits, a newcomer would probably be welcomed as a regular and greeted by name.