TABLETALK: DINING ADVENTURES ON OAK STREET
The Oak Street corridor between S. Carrollton Avenue and River Road has been undergoing a quiet renaissance lately. Anchored at its midpoint by food and entertainment favorites Jacques-Imo’s Café and the Maple Leaf Bar, a wide range of new eateries have recently percolated up around this funky nexus. Most of them are inexpensive, contribute to the laid-back feel of the area and, most importantly, demonstrate that a uniquely New Orleans neighborhood can be revitalized without losing any of its essential charm.
Gelato Pazzo Caffé
Much of this stretch of Oak Street is best appreciated during the day, when shops are open and pedestrian rambles can be pleasantly punctuated with a visit to one of the many new places offering a casual lunch. Among these is Gelato Pazzo Caffé, a bright, cheerful place that offers a lot more than its namesake dessert. Pressed Panini sandwiches and daily specials are available, making this a great choice for students and families alike. The sandwiches are made with Ciabatta bread from Susan Spicer’s Wild Flour Breads and showcase classic, high-quality ingredients like fresh mozzarella and Italian cured meats.
The Prosciutto and Fresh Mozzarella is one offering that delights in its simplicity. The bread is well crisped on the outside and while you can dress it up a little with basil pesto, it doesn’t really need it. Sandwiches get more complex with options such as a Grilled Portobello Mushroom with Gorgonzola Cheese and Balsamic Vinegar Reduction, and you can pile on the imported meats with a Casalinga Salami, Coppa Toscana, Prosciutto, Mortadella and Sopressata sandwich rounded out with either Cacio Cavallo or Provolone cheeses. If you want something hot, a daily lunch special is offered. Meats and cheeses are also sliced to order at a small deli counter if you want to take a little taste of Italy home. For dessert, try the Peanut Butter and Jelly gelato. For something a little lighter and more refreshing, a double-scoop of the lemon and lime sorbets will cool you off. Macchiatos and cappuccinos are available as well, and a private room can be rented for parties and events.
Right across the street from Gelato Pazzo Caffé is Queen of the Ball, a snowball and sweet shop owned and operated by Norma Bridges. Open since last August, the charming interior gives it the feel of a New Orleans institution. A colorful collection of syrup bottles line the hidden doors leading to the tiny kitchen, and the countertop is crowded with an assortment of glass jars filled with candies for sale. What sets these snowballs apart, (aside from their year-round availability,) is the inclusion of fresh fruit. In a coconut snowball, customers can have raspberries sandwiched between the layers of shaved ice, while another popular option is a strawberry snowball built around a core of sliced bananas. “I think we are the only ones around that do anything like it,” Bridges says. “They are our most popular items and are very refreshing in the summer.” Other notable treats include fresh-squeezed lemonade garnished with fruit and homemade hot chocolate cooked on the stovetop and piled with marshmallows and whipped cream.
Before she opened Queen of the Ball, Bridges owned a vintage clothing store on Oak Street. “I love Oak Street – it just has a kind of eclectic feel; I love the people here and the camaraderie. I like the walk-by traffic. We’ve got new blood and new energy, and people here just have a new determination.”
Along with the sweets, Bridges also offers wireless Internet, coffee drinks and hot chai. There are bookshelves and a couple of tables, making the parlor popular with adults as well as children. “We can accommodate meetings here for up to 15 or 20 people,” Bridges says. “We’ve also done Christmas parties.”
A few blocks down the street, Philip Chan’s Asian Cajun Bistro brings some eclectic fusion cuisine to an already funky neighborhood in the space formally occupied by Zachary’s Creole Cuisine. Its mustard-colored walls are decorated with a mix of colorful fish, jazz mementoes and wood trim, and on a recent visit reggae played gently on the sound system.
Chef Chan established the popular Chopstix Restaurant in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, and at his newest outpost on Oak Street the fusion isn’t just Asian with Cajun; the menu melds Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other cuisines as well. The crisp and flaky Curry Rolls are filled with a mildly seasoned mix of beef curry and onion, reminiscent of an Indian samosa. The Spicy Cabbage Seafood Soup showcases the Korean influences, with kim chi lending its distinctive spicy and sour complexity to the broth. The presence of crawfish tails connects the dish to Louisiana.
Diners are served a small plate of lightly pickled cabbage slightly infused with horseradish, making for both an unexpected snack and palate cleanser. The chili-fried shrimp are both garlicky and sweet with an underlying peppery burn. Notable also is an array of vegetarian offerings, something of a rarity here in New Orleans, which also serves to bring dinner prices into a more-accessible range for students who’ve forsaken their omnivorous roots.
The lunch specials here are a good deal, especially compared to the dinner prices. For $10 you can choose between a large assortment of seafood and meat options served in a lacquered bento box with fried rice, vegetables and an egg roll. If the weather is nice, try and get a seat on the porch and watch the ebb and flow of life along Oak Street.
Anchoring the grittier end of Oak Street down by the railroad tracks, Station 8801 serves up burgers and fries in an industrial-contemporary setting. A polished cement bar and sheet-metal wainscoting contribute to the mechanical-esque atmosphere of this former gas station. This newcomer’s more or less rote menu distinguishes itself with the inclusion of sweet potato fries dusted with powdered sugar and grilled tuna and grilled filet options. The Lettuce Wedge salad, a half-moon of iceberg lettuce scattered with blue cheese crumbles, bacon, onion and tomatoes is served on a metal plate along with two plastic ramekins of dressing. Happy hour and drink specials round out the appeal of this blue-collar burger joint.
Oak Street now echoes what Magazine Street looked like before some of its character was smoothed over with a sleek veneer of upscale shops. I don’t mean this critically; it’s just that right now a lot of the appeal of Oak Street stems from its scruffier edges. I expect a few years down the road it’ll be tamed a bit more, but at present this is a good time to visit, as its local flavor is still intact. Parents can enjoy taking their kids to Haase’s for shoes and balloons and afterward for a snowball across the street. Traditions like these – past and present – are part of what makes New Orleans special and we should all take advantage of them while we still can.
Gelato Pazzo Caffé
8115 Oak Street
Queen of the Ball
8116 Oak Street
Asian Cajun Bistro
8400 Oak Street
8801 Oak Street