The Best Restaurant in Mid-City You May Not Know, and A Contest

I've been living in Mid-City for more than a year now, and enjoying the neighborhood quite a bit. The area around the intersection of Canal and Carrollton has become a sort of restaurant hub over the last several years, with new places opening left and right. I've written before about the excellent brunch at the Canal Street Bistro where chef Guillermo Peters is putting out good food that includes a bit of the ambitious Mexican cooking for which he gained attention at Taqueros/Coyoacan. I've also mentioned Toups' Meatery here, and in a few weeks you'll get to read more in the pages of New Orleans Magazine. Greg Picolo's tenure at Redemption is noteworthy, and Rue 127 has been getting raves from most folks. There are others, too, but what I'm writing about today is Norma's Sweets Bakery on Bienville St. It's a place you may not have noticed, and even if you did see it, you might be unaware of the wide array of great food available inside.

I work downtown and sometimes take Bienville Street on my way into the office. I'd passed Norma's a few times, but honestly didn't pay too much attention to it. I was aware there was another Norma's in Kenner (3221 Georgia Ave.) and I'd heard good things about it, but with all of the places opening in New Orleans lately I hadn't had a chance to stop by. About two weeks ago my mother-in-law came by with some pastries she'd picked up at Norma's and I knew I had to check it out.

Norma's is not just a bakery, though that's one of the best reasons to visit. Everything is made in-house, from the bread for sandwiches to the wide selection of pastries and sweets. The flaky turnovers with guava and cheese are addictive, as are the bear claws with custard and the sweet cheese empanadas.

What came as a surprise to me, even after tasting the baked items, was how good the savory side of the kitchen can be. This is not a place that's meant for seated service. There's a picnic-style table between the bakery case and the breakfast/lunch counter, as well as a few tables near the cash register, but for the most part you'll get your food and take it elsewhere to eat.

First things first – the Cuban sandwich is really good. That's something I'd heard about the original Norma's, but I can now confirm it. It's not as high-end as the version you can get at, say, Cochon Butcher, but it's about the best classic version you can get in New Orleans. Having sampled a bunch of the other items available for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I can tell you it's no fluke. 

Tamales are consumed all over Central America, and Norma's often has Honduran, Cuban and  Salvadoran versions available in addition to the Mexican variety with which most of us are more familiar. The same is true of tacos; Mexican are the standard, but the big board that lists the day's fare often has Honduran versions on offer. Daily specials vary, but the carne asada was excellent, as was a seafood stew chock full of shrimp, crab and fish in a coconut-based broth. You can always get rice and generally a choice of at least two different bean preparations as side dishes, and baked plaintains or yucca make appearances as well. The Central American slaw known as curtido that's a traditional accompaniment to pupusas was as good as I've had in New Orleans, as were the pupusas themselves. I've only had the cheese pupusas, but I'm anxious to try the chicharron, as Norma's also makes that in-house. This has the side benefit of rendering a lot of lard which, when they haven't run out, you can buy fresh in mason jars.    

There's more to the breakfast menu than pressed sandwiches, but I'll be damned if I can tell you much about it. The first time I had a sandwich of eggs, chorizo, tomato and cheese pressed into one of the house-made loafs at Norma's, I was smitten, and I haven't been able to stray much farther than ordering variations on that theme every time I've returned. That is until recently, when I accepted the suggestion to go traditional and added refried beans and crema to the chorizo and eggs. If that sounds like an odd combination, try it; it's delicious.

There are usually a couple of salsas available with the savory dishes, one of which is invariably hotter than hell, so you should probably ask about that if you're of a tender nature. Service is friendly, though there can be something of a language barrier with some of the folks preparing the food. Generally speaking you can point and hold fingers up to indicate what and how many of a certain thing you want, but if you run into trouble seek out Jose Castillo, whose mother Norma owns both locations. Jose is a friendly guy who is also fluent in both English and Spanish, so if he's there you'll have no problems getting questions answered.

Jose told me that the family has owned the building for a few years, and have slowly been building it into the clean, bright space you'll see if you go. He's particularly excited about what's happening in the neighborhood, with the medical complex being built not far away, and condos popping up all around as well. It's a good time to be a restaurateur in Mid-City.

My writing gig generally means I'm unable to visit the same restaurant too frequently, but Norma's is so close to my home and so convenient that I've been compelled to become a regular. It's also pretty inexpensive; most of the pastries are within spitting distance of a dollar, and the savory food is pretty cheap too. A recent lunch of rice with vegetables, smothered chorizo, beans, two tortillas and a baked plaintain with crema came to $7.99. It was a lot of food.

Norma's Sweets Bakery is located at 2925 Bienville St., and you can call (504) 309-5401 to find out more.

I don't often pass on information about contests, but this one seems to have some merit, and it could be of benefit to you in more than an informational sense. The folks at Zagat are running a deal where, if you respond to their survey and give some pithy reviews to restaurants that you've visited, you can win a $100 gift card at Whole Foods.

You will have to give your email address and probably some other information (so far as I know there's no blood test involved). A t the end of the thing, you're asked to identify the blog from which you learned about the contest, one of which is this very blog! Apparently one winner is going to be chosen from each blog identified, with the decision going to the highest-quality review. The folks at Zagat will be the judges of that, but they've provided a link with some examples of what they're looking for, so there you are. Go here to learn more.

To be clear, I'm not getting anything from this, nor to my knowledge is Renaissance Publishing or (That better be the case; if somebody's making something off of this thing, it damn well better be me. I got mouths to feed, people.) I'm bringing it to your attention because one of you stands a pretty decent shot at a $100 gift card, because despite the fact that “millions” of people read Haute Plates every Thursday, not that many of you will likely follow through with the contest, meaning that those of you who do … well, you do the math.

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