Louisiana Express

4921 Bethesda Ave.



Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Breakfast 9 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday. Brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most items $3 to $6.

Credit Cards: None

Louisiana Express is, in a word, terrific. Mind you, not all its dishes are in that category -- a few are merely ordinary. But so much of what's served here is so good, and so authentically New Orleans, it's a restaurant to be treasured.

It's about as unpretentious a place as you could imagine: fast food-style ordering (although the food is brought to your table), plastic plates and cutlery, bright lights. But it's cozy and appealing, nonetheless, and the very low prices somehow make it even more attractive.

A good beginning is the catfish beignets, moist, firm, snowy-white chunks of fish in an excellent cornmeal batter, light and crisp, spicy but not overwhelmingly so. The fried oysters, in the same batter, are marvelously plump and juicy, and they're reasonably priced at $3.25 for a generous portion.

Shrimp balls, another fried appetizer, have been disappointingly pasty-textured and flavorless, and the Creole egg rolls are pleasant but nothing much.

Good fried oysters and catfish are also available in po' boys, wonderful sandwiches made with light, crusty French bread in the New Orleans style, with a good mustardy remoulade sauce, lettuce and tomato.

Also in the sandwich department, Louisiana Express serves one of the best burgers around, a generous half-pound of good ground beef, spicy and crusty on the surface, juicy within (order it medium rare for best results). It's served in a Rolls Royce of a hamburger roll along with sauteed onions and green pepper and a good remoulade sauce. On the side are equally outstanding shoestring fries. (Beware, though, that the "spicy fries," an option, are heavily dusted with dried herbs -- the novelty soon wears thin.)

A high point here is the rotisserie chicken, juicy, beautifully flavored with lemon juice and herbs and a great bargain -- half a big bird with excellent biscuits for $5. The andouille sausage is a staple of the house, and deservedly so -- it's lean, mean, hot and garlicky. If you want your pleasure pure, have it as the "hot hot dog," on a good roll with Creole relish. Or have it on the Creole pizza, which has been a puffy-crusted beauty lately, with a fruity, herby tomato sauce. For less fire, try the sausage diced over spinach in a very pleasant salad.

There are four styles of rice-based dishes, none of which are memorable, each offered with chicken, sausage or seafood. The best are the etouffee, in a mild yet incisively flavored brown sauce and the Creole, in a spicy tomato sauce. The poorest is the vegetable stir-fry, overcooked and undistinguished. Surprisingly, the gumbo was a letdown on our last two visits, dark and one-dimensional, and bitter.

The crawfish bisque is fiery hot, but without a lot of crawfish flavor. The alligator stew, a sometime-special, is thick, hearty and vibrantly flavored.