Beans 'N the Hood -- Plus Crawfish, Alligator Pie . . .
Galatoire's, Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Antoine's . . . New Orleans's legendary restaurants are fine if you like, well, legendary restaurants. But what if you're looking for something smaller, something more local -- someplace that not only has tasty and authentic food at reasonable prices, but also provides a window onto neighborhood life? Here are five eateries you might not find in all the guidebooks, but that the locals hold dear. And trust me, they know from rice and beans.
" Dick & Jenny's. This deceptively casual restaurant, set in a yellow clapboard cottage in the Uptown neighborhood, doesn't take reservations, but that's okay -- it's a good excuse to curl up on a porch swing in the enclosed patio and take in the scene. With its trellises, oilcloth-covered tables and blue-jeaned wait staff, the place couldn't be cozier. But chef Richard Benz's sophisticated seasonal menus belie the casual atmosphere. When I visited in early spring, entrees included hearty beef short ribs braised in Abita beer served over white bean andouille and tasso cassoulet, and a pomegranate and cinnamon-lacquered duck breast over sun-dried cherry and pistachio risotto with savoy cabbage and sweet braised confit. But for all the innovative touches, it's the Nawlins classics that have the most impact: tangy fried green tomatoes, crab cakes with mustard remoulade, corn-fried gulf oysters. "If you were frying up oysters at home," one local opined, smacking his lips over the cornmeal batter, "this is how you'd do it." If you usually skip dessert, make an exception for the coconut-crusted banana bread French toast with dark rum caramel, pecans and whipped cream.
4501 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-894-9880. No reservations. Entrees $15-$21.
" Fiorella's. You might walk right past this divey-looking place across from the French Market without giving it a second glance. Don't. You'd be missing out on some of the best fried chicken on the planet. "A New Orleans local cafe -- where good food is a family tradition," says a sign over the bar, and indeed, the place is packed with neighborhood workers at lunchtime. The scarred pine tables, chrome-and-leatherette bar stools, giant ATM in the dining room and front window stacked with soda crates only add to the ambience, and the hunkered-down patrons are clearly there for one reason: the food. Which brings us back to the chicken. It's fried fresh to order, and well worth the wait: With a crispy, peppery, lightly fried batter coating juicy, tender meat, it reminds you what the humble dish should, and can, be. Order it with a side of the creamiest mac and cheese ever, and don't forget the Rolling Rock (bucket of five, $10).
45 French Market Place (there's another entrance on Decatur Street), 504-528-9566. Entrees $8-$11.
" Franky and Johnny's. Not too many tourists find their way to this much-loved Uptown joint, and it's their loss. You make your way past a smoky, semi-seedy bar to a brightly lit dining room decked out with red-and-white checked oilcloth-covered tables, and settle down to make the hard choices -- boiled crawfish or alligator pie? Roast beef or soft-shell crab po'boy? Catfish or oyster platter? Pick your favorite form of swamp life -- if it can be fried, it's here. I had my first fried green pepper rings at Franky and Johnny's (where were they all my life?!), and it was here that I learned how to eat crawfish properly (bite off their heads). There's only one way to end a meal like this: peanut butter pie.
321 Arabella St., 504-899-9146. Dinner platters $6.50-$13.95.
" Joey K's. Don't come to this Garden District eatery for the decor: The bright overhead lights, paneled walls and concrete floors make for a no-frills dining experience. But neighborhood residents flock here for the homey atmosphere, friendly service and affordable, home-style cooking, including an all-you-can-eat catfish special for $10.95. The locals' beer of choice, Abita, is served in huge frosted chalices. Appetizers are surprisingly good, including tasty fried artichoke hearts and a creamy corn and crab bisque, rich with corn and big chunks of crabmeat. The hearty and basic Trout Tchoupitoulas, pan-fried and topped with zucchini, shrimp and potatoes, is another winner. The warm berry cobbler, served in an embarrassingly large bowl with ice cream, is the very model of a down-home dessert. I helped bus the table when I left -- it just seemed like the right thing to do.
3001 Magazine St., 504-891-0997. Entrees $7-$14.95.
" Praline Connection. Self-proclaimed headquarters for Creole soul food in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, the Praline Connection makes a snappy impression with its black-and-white decor and nattily attired wait staff, complete with bow ties and black fedoras. As its name indicates, this is the place to come for pecan candies in all their glory, as well as Mississippi mud pie and and myriad other chocolate concoctions.
But it's not just about dessert. All those wonderful Creole dishes you've dreamed about (filé gumbo, crawfish and shrimp etoufee, barbecued ribs, jambalaya), and some you haven't (crowder peas and okra with rice, turkey necks, hog's head cheese), are here. The rest is up to you. Just remember to save room for the world's greatest bread pudding, served warm with Amaretto, raisins and -- of course -- pecans.
542 Frenchmen St., 504-943-3934 (also 907 S. Peters St. in the Warehouse District, 504-523-3973). Entrees $9.75-$18.95.
-- K.C. Summers