Friday, May 28, 2010


In college, I took this math class called "Discreet Mathematics." It was either that or Calculus, and I sure as shit wasn't tempting that fickle mistress again. In Discreet Math class we learned about this theorem that if you have a certain number of random people in a room (I think it was 25 or more), there is a 100% chance that two of them will share a similar birthday.

Well, I'd like to introduce a new theorem. If you poll 5 or more random people who have all been to the same restaurant, at least 1 person will have had a bad experience there. This theorem presented itself after spending the afternoon and evening talking about restaurants in New Orleans with people from New Orleans.

"Stella? What is there about the place that is New Orleans?"

"Domenica. I don't like it at all, it's nothing like Italian food I'm used to."

"Crepe Nanou is terrible."

"Herbsaint? Ehhh. Nothing specific, it just didn't wow me."

That last complaint is one we hear almost continuously. "The food at X, just didn't wow me." If being wowed is what you are looking for in a dining experience, then prepare to be disappointed. Oftentimes food is just food. There is a protein, some starches and vegetables. They have been seasoned and cooked in a specific way and assembled for you enjoyment. That is it. Nothing more.

The experience you are looking for comes from the totality of the dining adventure. It depends on who you eat with, what your mood is, whether you are on vacation or not, whether there is a strong possibility of getting laid, or whether any number of other things fall into place to turn eating into a memorable meal.

Take for example this scenario. Let's say you and your significant other go on a vacation to the South of France. On the way down from Paris, you spend the evening in Orange. After showering and a nap you head out for dinner. Sitting under a tree in the town square, the chatter of a boules game in the background, the moon shines bright and clear. The waiter serves you a perfectly grilled leg of lamb with a delicious, gamy, peppery Cote Rotie.

So you come home and find the wine at your local purveyor. You and your significant other open the wine on a Tuesday night after a furious day at the office. Tomorrow you have to get up early and make sure to get to the dry cleaners as soon as they open so you can have a clean shirt for your assessment evaluation. Your SO's boss was a complete asshole earlier in the day and volunteered her to lead a seminar the day after Christmas. And the grocery store was out of lamb, but had burgers. You drink the wine, anyway.

Which time is more enjoyable?

The law of Diminishing Returns also applies to eating at restaurants. The more you eat out, the more you run into a bad or just average meal. Or more succinctly, the less you experience the joy and surprise of a special meal. In 2009, Lindsay and I dined out approximately 100 times together. I can recall every detail from four of the meals. The others have all but faded from memory.

When Lindsay and I ate at Meauxbar last week, we were both slightly sick, got stuck at a terrible table with a proficient but not great waiter, and had average food. Does that mean Meauxbar is a bad place to eat? No. It just means on that night, the restaurant and us were not speaking the same language.

So the moral of this story? You will have a great meal this year at a restaurant other people don't like and a bad meal at a spot everyone loves. This is a great thing in my book, as it will lead to more interesting discussions and arguments.

Also, someone shares your birthday.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Meauxbar Bistro

From March to April, Meauxbar Bistro enjoyed popularity rivaled only by Justin Bieber. A recent request for a Thursday night reservation for two was met with a sigh of relief: "This is the easiest table request I have had in the past 3 weeks." The restaurant on Rampart Street - whose usual clientele consists of insiders and French Quarter denizens - has capitalized on weeknight performances at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre and curious customers like ourselves who are eager to discover what we're missing out on.

To separate the lively restaurant from the outside world is not only a door, but also a curtained off foyer. Once inside, the staff (either purposefully or not) does a good job of separating the customers as well. As evidenced by the fact that in two separate visits, the host sat us and our companions at perhaps the worst table in New Orleans. This table is bordered by a window, a clunking ice machine, and the busy walkway the waiters use to ferry out drinks and return empty plates to the kitchen. Standing directly over your date's shoulder is one of the owners who from his perch behind the bar surveys the scene while drinking red wine. You may feel as though you are being watched.

The interior of Meauxbar anchors a dark bar to red and white tiled floors illuminated by dim lights. The Buddha statue strewn barback lends a vibe reminiscent of both Restoration Hardware and a Buddhist brothel. From the bar a thick, satiny banner of red cloth separates the good side of the restaurant from the bad like a prayer flag atop Everest. Sit on the good side, and you dine under alternating frames of mirrors and paintings of nature with laughter and the clinking of glasses. On the bad side is the ice machine and the clink of glasses into a bus tray. As in the choice between heaven and hell, be proactive before someone else decides your fate.

The Asian influence seeps from the decor onto the plate. A flounder en papillote (on Rene's visit it was grouper) comes stuffed with spices and flavoring of the orient: lemongrass, coconut milk, ginger, curry, and shitakes. The pretty package perfumes the table, but the fish does not absorb the flavors and the sauce is anorexic. Likewise with the appetizer of mussels, which were steamed to plump and tender perfection, but let down by frozen french fries and a tepid red curry broth.

Another curious detail of Meauxbar concerns the prices. You will be pleased to learn that the entrees, like a child actor, rarely turn 30. You may be less pleased to know that this is only slightly more expensive than the appetizers with no noticeable uptick in quality. Witness a steak tartare ($18), its luscious texture studded with capers and bits of anchovy, topped with the golden yolk of a quail. Crispy, buttered croutons turned this luxury item into one of the world's best dips. Contrast this with a $21 Chicken Grand-Mere and its flabby skin, overcooked flesh, undercooked potatoes and a sauce which can best be described as dirty.

A Salad Lyonnaise also exhibited the common inconsistency in one dish. The egg poached to perfection leaked yellow from its hidebound white with the slightest pressure from the fork. The lardons had been cooked to a slightly crunchy, but tender nibble. The frisee was as bitter as a Vikings Fan in February. What was missing? Acid. Without a well-made vinaigrette, the salty bacon, bitter lettuce, and creamy egg never gel. Sadly, this salad was one component away from perfection.

But there is much to like. Coarse pâté is served in a slab so generous that extra crostini will be required. Roasted beets are mashed with ricotta to create a ravioli filling rich with milk fat but still firm in texture. The dozen pillows of pasta are bathed in a pool of pepper-flecked, sage brown butter which should (and does) double as a spread for crusty french bread. Slow cooked rabbit is pulled from the bone and folded into a cream sauce which is then tossed with tagliatelle. A winter dish served in May, true, but also a reminder to return come December.

The wine list is not built for accolades, but is very good at delivering well-priced, quaffable wines which pair well with Meauxbar's bistro cuisine. The median price for a bottle is $40. A refreshing and palette-cleansing basil ice cream is sometimes offered on the house to those who opt for a glass of port instead of dessert. The wait staff is kind and convivial, but not to the point where professionalism is lost.

Despite a location on the extreme outskirts of the Vieux Carre and the absence of valet parking, Meauxbar has established a loyal clientele of repeat customers. (The Folk Singer has been thrice since March.)

The Rankings

Food - Par/Birdie. Strong cooking technique is regrettably overshadowed by flavors which either lack vibrancy or fall one ingredient short of excellence. But when it all comes together - as in the steak tartare and beet-ricotta ravioli - you realize the kitchen's full potential.

Wine/Bar/Service - Par/Birdie. The predominance of French wines matches the bistro-focused cuisine and offers selections to fit any budget. The wait staff is friendly, informative, and omnipresent (but not to the point of smothering). The small bar is serviceable and well stocked. We have said enough already about our favorite table.

Overall - Par/Birdie. Meauxbar has a certain sexiness about it. The quiet location across from Armstrong Park, soft spoken service, and stylish decor creates a Creole-Soho hybrid atmosphere. Flavors from the Far East inject novelty into French classics, but sometimes a single misstep downgrades an otherwise well executed dish. Success is there, you just need be fortunate enough to choose it from the menu.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bugs & Brew for Drew

On Saturday June 12th, the Drew Rodrigue Foundation will hold a crawfish boil cook-off to raise money for the fight against Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Drew Rodrigue was a fellow Jesuit class of 2000 graduate, rabid Saints fan, budding high school football coach, and 7 year cancer survivor who eventually lost the battle in August 2009.

The Drew Rodrigue Foundation was started by friends of ours to honor Drew's legacy and to raise money for the fight against Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The Crawfish Cook-Off will hopefully help the DRF surpass its goal of raising $50,000 to establish a research grant targeted at Advanced Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

The event will be held at Jesuit High School in the rec field. Entry fee for a team is $200, with 2 sacks of crawfish provided to each team by the DRF. For those of us who like to put all of our energy toward pinching tails and sucking heads, $20 gets you all you can eat crawfish all day long. Beers will be sold for $2 each. At the end of the day, one team will be crowned champion.

Details can be found on the Drew Rodrigue Foundation website. If you are unable to attend but still would like to help, tax-exempt donations can be made to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and make sure to include “Drew Rodrigue Memorial Fund” in the Memo/Note section of the check.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Artist at the Plate

In the 1990's before Link, Garcia, and Besh ruled the CBD and Warehouse District, one of the most sought after tables in the city was at Mike's on the Avenue. Crawfish spring rolls and oysters topped with Korean barbecue sauce signaled the forthcoming Asian influence on traditional cuisines. The man behind this now omnipresent blending of cuisines sits in his calm, white and green dining room trying to recall how the past became the now. But to really understand Mike Fennelly's approach to food, you must understand he is an artist first.

Art has always been a part of Fennelly's life. After growing up as the son of an artist in Northport, Long Island, Fennelly moved to New York City after high school to study at the Parson's School of Design. While pursuing his art degree, he began what would become a recurring theme in his life. By working in restaurants (including stints at Windows on the World the restaurant inside the World Trade Center, the River Cafe, and Empire Diner) he could have enough money to avoid being a starving artist. "For some artists being starving motivates them to paint better, but not for me," Fennelly explains.

A move to Point Reyes, California found him working in an ad agency doing book design by day and cooking for friends at night. A jaunt down to Los Angeles found him studying interior design and architecture while cooking for a catering company. Next, a move back East to Washington, D.C. to become a catering chef. After a few years, to Santa Fe to focus on painting but which soon found him installed as the chef at Santacafe.

As all American artists must do by law, Fennelly soon found himself in New Orleans. Here is where his unique style of cooking really began to take off. For example, the sauce on his barbecue oysters comes from the dressing on a sashimi salad served at a Korean BBQ. "Wherever I lived, I was usually near Chinatown, and I just learned to cook with those ingredients and flavors from experimentation. Also, I have an innate sense of what goes together." Fennelly explains.

Fennelly left New Orleans in the mid-90's and struck out on a cross-continent journey. Eventually he found himself in a Lost like setting, living on a remote fifteen-acre self-sustainable piece of land on the Big Island of Hawaii. "No electricity, no water, I built a road. The goal was to build a bed and breakfast."

While there, he cooked with local, organic ingredients in a nearby Hippie town using only what was available. His paintings at this time took on a decidedly local viewpoint as well. Fennelly estimates in five years he painted more than 500 paintings and sculptures of the Hawaiian landscape and especially focusing on the colors and movement of koi (shown below).

But soon Fennelly left again. This time heading back to the East Coast to live in Provincetown, Massachusetts. There, he and Bailey reunited and opened Wabi Dumplings serving bite sized snacks to hungry tourists. While working together again, they learned that the original space of Mike's on the Avenue was back on the market.

And here they are again, serving crawfish spring rolls, crawfish and crab cakes with wasabi, those barbecued oysters, and duck filled pancakes. Fennelly still paints, now it is the glittering facets of the chandeliers which line the antique shops on Royal St and paintings of sushi and oysters, rather than the colors of koi. His artwork can be seen at the Steve Martin Gallery; his food tasted at Mike's on the Avenue, once again.

Monday, May 24, 2010

In Search of Monday Lunch: Café Minh

Café Minh was one of the first reviews we wrote for OffBeat Magazine; and while the food is much the same now as it was back then, I'd say that our collective opinion on the restaurant has changed over time. It's tough to categorize and/or compare Café Minh with the more traditional Vietnamese restaurants, which our palettes have begun to favor. So Café Minh might not be our first choice to satisfy a hardcore craving for pho or chargrilled pork, but it's Vietnamese/French fusion cuisine still has a place in our stomachs. And it's open for lunch on Monday.

There is no better way to begin the meal than with a combination plate of Summer Rolls and Beggar's Purse. Cool and crisp rolls of shrimp, vegetables and avocado on one side; hand-formed pork and shrimp steamed dumplings on the other.

Main courses look and sound familiar, but there is usually an unexpected twist. The chargrilled pork sandwich adds green leaf lettuce, mayo, and balsamic vinaigrette to the traditional banh mi. Pho includes well-done brisket and meatballs but leaves out the tendon and ruby red slices of beef which barely cook through in the steaming broth. Cold salads of vermicelli noodles are spruced up with mixed greens, paneed chicken breast, and a nuoc mam based dressing.

No curry goat, deep fried quail, or grilled pork pate. Just a unique restaurant serving Vietnamese classics in unfamiliar ways.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Weekend Breakfast: Stanley

After less than a year in the working world, I have officially morphed into one of those people. You know, the ones who say, "My body is so accustom to waking at ___a.m. during the week, that I can't sleep late on the weekends anymore." I used to loathe these individuals, interpreting their early-to-rise ways as underhanded disapproval of my wasting away the weekend in bed. And now, I have becomes one of them.

In the words of Michael Scott: "If that's not poetic justice, then I don't know what is."

One of the few benefits to waking up early on the weekend is beating the brunch rush. Let's be honest: If you are expecting to waltz into Russell's Marina Grill or Surrey's at 11:00am on a Sunday and immediately be seated, then more likely than not you are still drunk from the night before. But at 9:30, usually the wait for a table is minimal (if any at all).

Such was the case at Stanley (on Mother's Day at that), where the Folk Singer and I stood outside in Jackson Square for a brief 5 minutes before our name was called for a table. We wrote about Stanley for OffBeat a while back, but it's been that long since I have eaten there. Not much has changed, and that's a good thing.

I'm still partial to the Breaux Bridge Benedict ($12.50), as the combination of boudin and hollandaise is just too rich to pass up. Poached eggs are orbs set high atop french bread rounds, and a stroke of a knife sends yolk slowly oozing downward like lava from a mountain top. The thin squares of smoked ham scattered around the plate raise the pork quotient even higher, but they're relegated to an afterthought.

The cornmeal crusted oysters in the Eggs Stanley were excellent - golden brown and crunchy on the outside, with a soft interior that exploded with the taste of the sea. Luckily for me, The Folk Singer does not eat oysters, and there is no "classic" benedict on the menu - though I'm sure you can order one by special request.

But you know what I like most about Stanley? The location and windows onto Jackson Square allow you to sit back and watch the Quarter slowly arise from its slumber. You will see everything from tourists rushing to catch an early morning flight, Captain America on his way to Royal Street, and a morbidly obese man sitting shirtless on his Royal Street balcony and drinking a cafe au lait.

Hopefully your eyes avoid that last image until after breakfast.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jazz Fest for People Who Like Wine

The New Orleans Wine and Food Experience (NOWFE), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Jimi Hendrix Experience begins next Wednesday with a series of wine dinners in New Orleans (and one in Baton Moulin Rouge). The vintner dinners pair a winery with a restaurant and the price includes tax, tip, and wines in most cases. A few dinners have sold out already, so act now. If I were going Calcasieu and Domenica would be at the top of my list if money was an object and M Bistro if it was not. But a little birdie told me The Pope's sister will be at G.W. Fins, so you have got that going for you, which is nice.

Perhaps the most enjoyable event of the weekend, the Royal Street Stroll, takes place on Thursday evening. The galleries lining Royal Street pair up with wineries for a very enjoyable evening of drinking and looking at art. Hint: Dogs playing poker will only increase in value the longer you own it.

Rounding out the week's events are seminars, wine auctions and the immensely popular Grand Tastings. Imagine the floor of the Superdome littered with confetti and Garrett Hartley carrying off a ticket to the Super Bowl. Now replace the confetti with wine and Garrett Hartley with Dread Pirate Robert and you got the vibe of the Grand Tastings.

So, finally to conclude for once and for all, the NOWFE gives you the opportunity to eat, look at art, relish in the glory of the Saints, and more all while drinking wine. What is not to love? Well, besides Dread Pirate Robert, he smells like mold.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Your Call - Mayas

Located across the street from Aidan Gill and Juan's Flying Burrito, Maya's takes Latin cuisine and fuses it with other cultures. They even have a clever name for it: Latin Fusion. For example, shrimp coated in tempura and Jamaican Tostones share space on the appetizer list. The overall decor of the place reminds one of eating in treasure chest, the walls lined with Latin American art and the ornate pressed tin tile ceiling.

Last Thursday, Lindsay and I headed over to Maya's to grab lunch. Bonus, Maya's runs a three course, lunch special for $12.99. Double bonus, we parked on Magazine Street, did not feed the meter, and did not get caught.

Soup or Salad? How about one of each. Had the garde manger used some restraint in the dressing of this salad it would have been quite good. The chicken tortilla soup however married yellow curry and chicken stock into a hearty soup. Oftentimes, tortilla soup arrives awash in acidic lime juice which overloads the flavors of the soup. Not here, but some more spice would have gone a long way.

For our entrees we settled on the ropa vieja and the chicken tropical. The former came out as a large nest of stringy brisket awash in a vibrant red sauce with rice underneath. Nothing special about the ropa vieja, nothing bad either. It was well-made, the meat tender, the sauce had a lot of flavors going on, but maybe ropa vieja is not for me.

Maya's chicken tropical stacks earthy black beans, rice, a grilled chicken breast, and a chunky, spicy mango salsa with expert results. Each bite brings forth a different sensation and licking the bowl is not out of the question. The chicken breast, likely the least interesting thing in the dish, would have benefited from less cooking and a brine.

The tres leche at Maya's is delicious. Just soggy enough to make it creamy with a wonderful pastry cream (or perhaps Cool Whip) topping, it makes going back to work seem futile. The banana ice cream is less-good and a little icy. Just get the tres leches, trust me on this.

Next time the lunch doldrums hits you and you can't stomach another sandwich from ______. give Maya's a try.

Maya's - Par.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Craft Beer Week

In the 1990's, beer finally broke free of the bonds of mass production and ushered in the era of the microbrew. There are many reasons why Americans began sipping better beer. Some believe it was due to Jimmy Carter's signing of a bill allowing homebrewing. Others claim the desire for great beer swelled with the Baby Boomer Generation and halcyon days of traveling through Europe.

Whatever and whyever is no bother. The American Brewing scene has never before been so strong and diverse. One can now walk into a bar and enjoy a piney, teeth-searing, hoppy ales of the Northwest or the sweet flavors of Lazy Magnolia. Abita, part of the vanguard of the microbrew movement, is now a big boy in the world of beer and newcomers like NOLA and Bayou Teche are staking a claim to be the new black.

American Craft Beer Week celebrates beer this week. The events are scattered around town and showcase the offerings of top craft brewers from San Diego to Brooklyn. So if you like beer check out the list of events and partake in the pleasures of the pint.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Search of Monday Lunch: La Guadalupana

Located in an unassuming shotgun house on Broad Street, La Guadalupana seems out of place among the numerous bail bondsmen and criminal defense offices in the area. Not surprisingly, few would be diners come upon the restaurant by chance. If you are ever summoned for jury duty at Criminal District Court, this is a good spot to beat the crowds for a quick lunch. For those in the CBD, it's less than a 10 minute drive.

The menu is quite extensive for such a small restaurant. Tacos of all sorts come topped with slivers of fresh avocado and a heavy scattering pico de gallo. Enchiladas are rolled to order and topped with melted cheese. The Salvadoran influence is shown in the warm, orange-hued salsa (served complimentary with chips to start your meal) and pupusas stuffed with cheese and/or chicharron. Fried yuca, skirt steak, and menudo are all lurking on the menu as well.

Surroundings are at a minimum - tile floors, banquet chairs, and table cloths that I swear were purchased from my grandmother's 1986 moving sale. The food seems to come slowly from the kitchen, but that's not necessarily a bad sign. Chances are that English is the second language for most of the other diners in the room, but you will still be able to figure out who they're cheering for between the soccer match on TV. I expect this to be a very popular (and entertaining) spot to watch the World Cup this summer.

La Guadalupana - Par

Friday, May 14, 2010


Fans of the Bluebird Cafe did not have to wait long for another breakfast spot to fill the void. After a brief run at Fuel Coffee House, Chef James Leeming opened Coulis in Bluebird's former location on Prytania, and almost instantaneously the lines started forming again on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The short menu runs the gamut from basic breakfasts to creative concoctions. Eggs Benedict has mini jalapeno cornbread cakes, topped with pulled pork, poached eggs, and an excellent hollandaise. (Deja vu?) Delicious, yes, but the portion was much too small for the price ($13). Same goes for the Eggs Creole (below), whose sausage gravy was just begging to be poured all over a biscuit. Unfortunately, a heavy dose of that gravy is necessary to redeem an otherwise dry, crumbly biscuit.

The best choice on the menu is the Huevos Rancheros, which coincidentally was the Bluebird's most popular dish. A shallow bowl contains black beans on one side and fire roasted tomato salsa on the other; grilled tortillas stuffed with cheese serve as a raft for poached eggs, and then long, fried tortilla chips are arranged on the outside like golden rays of sunshine. At $9, this is a dish worth waiting in line for.

When I wake up hungry on the weekend, I want food and I want it now. As such, if eating at a particular place requires waiting in line, it better serve one hell of a breakfast. On the whole, Coulis serves better than above average fare, but I am not so sure if the usual wait for a table are justified. But if I drive by and there are no crowds outside, chances are I'm putting the car in park.

Coulis - Par

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Portrait of a Bar: Henry's

Before we begin, let's go over a pet peeve of mine. The terms "gastro-pub" and "wine bar" are redundant. A pub serves food and ale; a gastro-pub serves food and ale. What is the difference, you ask? The gastro-pub thinks it is better than the pub. And as far as wine bars are concerned, Bloggle said it best. Sitting in a well-known "wine bar" (but not his), a glance around the room found nearly everyone drinking beer. "Everyone wants to own a wine bar cause they think it is classier than just owning a bar. This is New Orleans. Call it what you will, but if you want to be successful, it needs to be a bar," Bloggle opines.

That means you need to serve cold beer and a well-made, stiff drink at attractive prices. Henry's Bar, on the corner of Soniat and Magazine stands for just that. I'll grant you places like Cure and Bar Uncommon have their place in my hearts, but when I want to go to a bar, it is Henry's.

The key to this bar is the way in which it changes throughout the day like watching the seasons change in fast-forward. In the early afternoon, old timers from round the corner sit and bitch ("They shouldn't even call it Jazz Fest, dey don't have much Jazz anymore. Who the hell is Pearl Jam?" And everyone's favorite: "BP can kiss my ass."). It makes for delightful backtalk as you plow through $1.50 cans of beer.

The cocktails here are to be ordered with liberal use of conjunctions and prepositions. This is not the place to test the barkeeps knowledge of emerging applications with Thai basil infused St. Germaine libations. Rather it is a place to find an honest drink. A martini, a Jack Daniels with a splash of water, a scotch and soda; these are the drinks they make well and strong here.

As the evening wears on, the old timers retire and are replaced by white-linened, ex-lettermen and their pastel attired dates. They stroll in from a wedding or party which ended around midnight. "Henry's," one says, "let's go there; it wont be too crowded." But soon the side room with its mismatched chairs and leaning tables will fill to brim with similar thoughts and persons.

That jukebox which in the afternoon hummed out Hall and Oates, Coe, and Cash becomes a dance hall DJ. As if mandated by law, soon someone will play "Come on Eileen" sending the entire crowd in a rush like lemmings off a cliff to join in its addictive bridge. Meanwhile, the bartender with an unlit cigarette dangling in his mouth talks no one out of a shot at 1:45 in the morning.

Soon the crowds disperse, and there is talk of heading to F&M's. But trust me on this, go home. Nothing good ever happens at F&M's. Nothing, you here me. Besides you just left the best bar in New Orleans.

Henry's - Eagle

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Your Call - Salsas por el Lago

There are three types of people who know about Salsas por el Lago:
  1. Regulars at the volleyball courts at Coconut Beach
  2. Members of Southern Yacht Club
  3. High school students who hang out at The Point

Located in a building which long ago housed a Ground Pati (and a bunch of other stuff since then), Salsas serves the "authentic" Mexican cuisine which has taken the city by storm over the past few years. To say that Salsas has flown under the radar since its inception is an understatement - the first three times I went, the only patrons were myself and the same 80 year old man in a trucker hat who sat at the end of the bar and talked (in English) to the television (broadcasting in Spanish). Hopefully the hour long wait on Cinco de Mayo is a sign of an upswing in business.

The food is simple, cheap, and good. Sure, the chips come straight from a bag, but cutting corners such as those can be forgiven at these prices. Start with “The Dip” - a smooth puree of avocado and sour cream with flecks of black pepper and heat from jalapeno. Tacos ($2 each) are double wrapped in corn tortillas and dressed with onions and cilantro. Smaller in size than most others, 5 make a filling meal. Choice of meats are the usual suspects:
  • Chicharron – soft, porky, goodness
  • Beef Fajita – crispy chunks
  • Lengua – a bit too chewy in my opinion
  • Desebrada – shredded beef similar to pot roast
  • Chicken - never had it
  • Barbacoa – succulent and rich shreds of beef cheeks; the best by far.

The red salsa has a strong vinegar component; green salsa is in a true verde style (not thick like Taqueria D.F.). Burritos, enchiladas, and tortas fill out the rest of the menu, no item on which crosses the $10 threshold.

While the food at Salsas will not blow you away, the location and value should place this newcomer on more people's radar. Open 7 days per week for dine-in or pickup, Salsas is a great place for those looking for a quick bite at an affordable price. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Heat is On

Ladies and Gentlemen, Spring has left the building.

The first blast of summer occurred at approximately 3:07 pm last Thursday. Walking back from Mike's on the Avenue, the rising bands of heat off the sidewalk and sweat-stained shirt collar welcomed me back into summer's fold. Of course, we had a brief release from heat on Mother's Day, but really that is no different than the governor's eleventh hour phone call to the warden to hold off the execution for another 24 hours.

The good thing about the heat wave? It means we get to eat all manners of sticky, sweet, cold treats. Snowballs, gelato, spumoni, frozen yogurt, and Dackrees wait for you after a long day in the yard. My insatiable sweet tooth has been in overdrive as I've sampled gelato from Gaspare's (pitch-perfect Stracciatelli), frozen yogurt from newly opened, already a hit Pinkberry, and more.
But first, I have a little confession to make. I have never had a Hansen's snowball. I grew up in Old Metairie, near Sal's snowball stand. You may recall Lee's Theorem which holds that one's preference for a snowball stand is directly proportional to the distance it is from one's childhood home. While my summers were mostly spent riding my bike wherever we darn well pleased, the trek to Hansen's would have been a little out of reach. Needless to say my inaugural trek to Hanson's is what I am looking forward to most this summer.

So the million dollar question is what flavor to get? My all time favorite flavor is grape, but orange, blackberry, and coconut have made strong lobbies in the past. The floor is yours.

Monday, May 10, 2010

In Search of Monday Lunch: Freret Street Po-Boys & Donut Shop

No one has ever accused Blackened Out of being overly stereotypical in our dining preferences. While the guidebooks sing the praises of jambalaya, crawfish pie, and file gumbo, we're usually blathering on about steaming bowls of pho, chicharron tacos, and sweetbreads with truffled grits. But a recent lunch at a neighborhood joint served as a revelation of just how delicious simple, everyday New Orleans food can be.

This past September, Troy Rhodes and his wife Myra opened their restaurant just a few blocks from their children's school. Troy had been in the air conditioning business for years and decided he had become tired of climbing into attics all day. After dropping the kids off for school one day, they passed a royal blue corner building and a few months later they were open for business.

Counter service and a friendly smile make for a fast and affordable lunch. The menu is full of recipes culled from generations of family. "I just cook like I cook at home," says Troy. The gumbo is thin on roux but loaded with shrimp, chicken, two kinds of sausage, and plenty of flavor. Creamy red beans are complete with bits of ham hock (both meat and bone). This Monday staple is available everyday, either as a stand alone meal or paired with hot sausage or 2 pieces of fried chicken for $9. A rotating selection of plate lunches include smothered cabbage with potatoes, fried seafood, and stewed chicken.

Some people measure the deliciousness of a roast beef po-boy based on how many napkins are needed to consume one. The roast beef at Freret Street is not nearly as messy as Parkway Bakery, but several napkins are still required. Whole roasts are studded with copious amounts of garlic cloves and then cooked down till the debris style shreds of beef are cloaked in a gravy with plenty of body and soul.

And just in case you missed them for breakfast, the homemade donuts make an excellent dessert.

Freret Street Po-Boys not only serves quality, affordable New Orleans home cooking, but the restaurant is an example of the revitalization of the area. "I remember when Dunbar's was here," Troy recalls. "Maybe one day down the road, people will look back and remember us as a pioneer for this whole area." With food like this, Troy is well on his way.

Freret Street Po-Boys & Donut Shop
4701 Freret Street

Friday, May 7, 2010

Blackened Out on the Town

Despite what the above picture connotes, life is not all food, fun, and games here at Blackened Out. Behind the dinners, the drinks, and diatribes, we are working nonstop to keep our readers abreast of the various events happening around town.

Our inbox fills everyday with emails from restaurants, markets, wine shops and the like promoting everything from dinners to wine tastings to cheese classes. In order to keep track of it all, we created a calendar for all to use, and thus Blackened Out on the Town was born. You can find the calendar on the left hand side of our website.

From time to time, we will highlight a specific event which we have attended in the past and recommend you should in the future. The entire month of May happens to be an extraordinarily busy time in the city, with everyone taking advantage of our last few days before the stifling summer heat begins. Here are just a few upcoming events:

So many parties, so little time.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Your Call - The Avenue Pub/J'anita's

Editor's Note: Your Call is running today due to yesterday's May's Sink Article. We apologize if you spend the rest of the day thinking today is Wednesday.

The Avenue Pub is the city's best dispenser of beer. The selection of beers from local, regional, national, and international brewers of pilsners, porters, ales, and lagers would mesmerize even the biggest beer geek. Situated in a an unfolding, ramshackle building on St. Charles, the bar boasts two levels, a balcony, and an interior that can best be described as Frat house chic. Quite simply, this bar kicks ass if you like beer.

Inside of The Avenue Pub, J'Anita's slings upscale bar food to a willing and ready crowd. While some of the food served as shining examples, other options served only to befuddle. For instance, the much-talked about St. Chuck Duck sandwich could only be developed or liked by a stoner with the munchies. Cabernet braised duck meat, blue cheese, cheddar cheese, balsamic reduction, currant tapenade, apple, the kitchen sink, and nuclear launch codes rested uncomfortably between two slices of sourdough. Admittedly the first bite is interesting, the second more so, but by the third your palate is exhausted by the assaulting cacophony of competing flavors. The cool potato salad, however, had many redeemable qualities.

A good idea would be to shift the some of the attention from the St. Chuck Duck to the burger. Absent from this bar staple was any discernible flavor or juiciness. While this burger may be wonderful after three glasses of Stone Rumination I.P.A., after only one, it fell way short of what a burger can be.

All the missteps aside, the kitchen crew at J'Anita's turns out nearly perfect examples of bar food staples. And let's be honest, if you are drinking beer, you would be hard pressed not to order cheese fries anyway. Although the cheese fries could use more toppings to justify their price tag, they are a shining bacon covered city of sturdy potatoes and flowing rivers of melted cheddar. Or get your hands on their impeccable guacamole. In fact, J'Anita's guac is the best in the city. Creamy, tangy, and just a touch of heat make this the perfect foil for cold beer.

Which at the end of the day, is why you came here. Come for the beer, but stay for the appetizers.

The Avenue Pub - Eagle
J'Anita's - Par

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The 5th of May

Raise your hand if today's agenda includes (1) imbibing enough tequila to fill Lake Pontchartrain,(2) eating a bucket of chili con queso, (3) an oversized sombrero, and (4) a samba line to "Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot."

Happy Cinco de Mayo.

But a bit of background before we start licking salt and sucking limes. Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day (which is September 16th), but a celebration commemorating the Mexican Army's victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo celebrations are mostly limited to Puebla and border towns full of gringos.

Who cares? In New Orleans it's just another reason to throw a party, and plenty of restaurants are getting in on the action. Superior Grill will undoubtedly be bursting with people lined up for 6 deep at the bar, as will Chevy's, Cuco's, Serrano's, and the like. Taqueria Corona, Nacho Mama's, and the Rum House will be popular with the Uptown crowd, likewise for El Gato Negro and Tomatillo's with the French Quarter and Marigny folk. Felipe's has locations in both areas. Taqueria Guerrero, Taco San Miguel, and Taqeuria Sanchez fall into the category of "you know it's authentic because they only play Mexican television." I will probably stay close to home and visit Salsas por el Lago in West End, which will be the subject of a "Your Call" in the near future.

But the most important choice you make today will be what to drink. Beer lovers have a plethora of Mexican options: Corona, Dos Equis, Tecate (in a can is my personal favorite), Modelo, Sol, Estrella, Pacifico, and Bohemia to name a few. If you fancy a margarita, the questions are: Frozen or rocks? With or without salt? Classic or fruit flavored? Or you can just shoot Cuervo all night long - it's really up to you.

Wherever and however you celebrate, beware that The Pope set the bar pretty high on a trip to Tijuana two years ago. Details of that day are hazy at best, but let's just say that after "mas tequila" at the Coko Bongo, La Papa somehow managed to cross back over into the U.S. while armed with a blow gun and a ceramic frog holding a sign which said "Bienvenidos." He then bought 11 bags of churros from the peasant vendors on the bus and ate himself into a cinnamon and sugar covered coma.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

2010 Challenge: Gautreau's

When Dre and Dieter were in town, we spent the Saturday night before Easter in the warm embrace of Sue Zemanick, chef at Gautreau's. Of the multitude of delicious things we ate that evening, one in particular has stuck in my craw. It was a simple dish of smoky, braised collard greens topped by a perfectly crisp sweetbread. While I can complain that one orb of gland seemed miserly, the flavor of the dish spoke volumes about how talented Chef Zemanick is.

So of course I had to try it at home.

Sweetbreads with Collard Greens and Mustard Beurre Blanc

A few things off the bat. Most cuts of meat from any animal can be called "gross" by someone. That said, sweetbreads are not the balls of any animal. They come from the thymus gland of a calf or lamb, but mostly the former. When cooked properly, they become tender and rich like a teenage millionaire with low self esteem.

Now where to find them? Well, I am sure if you asked your grocer, they could source them for you. But the friendly and knowledgeable folks at the Rare Cuts in River Ridge have them in stock. Cooking sweetbreads is a multi-step, two day process. The first step is to soak the sweetbreads overnight in some cold water in the fridge. Change the water every few hours. This draws out many of the impurities and blood.

I used the basic technique for cooking sweetbreads from Susan Spicer's Crescent City Cooking. Here is the short form, mirepoix in pan, saute for 5 minutes. Add sweetbreads, wine, water to cover, salt, bay leaf, peppercorns. Bring to boil, then lower for a simmer, and cook until tender like a young woman's breast (her words, not mine).

Then plunge sweetbreads into an ice bath, place on a baking sheet, place another baking sheet on top, weigh it down, and let smoosh in the fridge for at least an hour. Then you can trim off some of the outer membrane and portion. Dust in flour and pan fry in some olive oil and butter.

While the sweetbreads cooked, cooled, and smooshed, make some collards. Saute small dice of tasso until crusty. Add to this a diced onion and some whole garlic cloves. I like to keep the garlic whole because it develops a sweet, nutty flavor. Then add your collards, some salt, hot sauce, cup of water (or stock), and slowly cook for as long as you got.

I made a simple mustard beurre blanc with some wine, mustard and butter in order to bring some acid and punch to what are very rich and hearty flavors. If you want the recipe, just ask, but Google is easier.

Cooking sweetbreads at home had its trying moments, as learning how to cook them is something that is best shown by example rather than read in a book. For instance, distinguishing between membrane, fatty tissue, and the meat proved challenging.

At the end of the excursion, we had a meal that wasn't overly challenging to prepare, but brought a sense of celebration to the table. We pulled out the nice wine glasses, the "company" place mats, and ate while the rain thundered down. Perhaps more importantly, the process also made me appreciate how a well-made sweetbread in a restaurant speaks volumes about a chef's craft.

Monday, May 3, 2010

In Search of Monday Lunch: Mona's Cafe

Today's suggestion for Monday lunch is inspired by The Folk Singer's favorite snack from this past weekend at Jazz Fest, where a falafel sandwich made for perfect snacking during Pearl Jam. It was like 1995 all over again....

Mona's on Banks Street is a deceptively short drive from the CBD, where the only place to snag some shawarma is Sir Gyro's in the Place St. Charles Food Court. While the Mona's lacks the salutation, her gyro is a cut above most others. The thick slices of ground lamb and beef are given a nice crust from the flat top griddle and then rolled up in pita bread for a cheap and filling $7 sandwich.

Mona's has a few quirks in their salads. Instead of olive oil and lemon juice, salads are dressed with more of a traditional Italian-style dressing with lots of herbs. (I prefer the former.) Feta cheese and olives are sometimes omitted from the mix unless specifically asked for. Just a few peccadilloes which matter to some more than others.

The thick yogurt dip known as lebna is not to be missed, as is the refreshing tabouli salad. The best way to sample those selections (and many more) is the Mona's Special Appetizer, which also includes hummus, baba ganoush, grape leaves, kibby and falafel. Large enough for 2; tasty enough that sharing may not be an option.