"You really have to have a reason to come out here," says Maria Guth, owner of the Banks Street Bar, which has been supplying one such reason since reopening in September.
Electricity was still months away for much of Mid-City when Guth returned live music to Banks Street Bar in the form of acoustic performances by candlelight. The liquor was initially set up on a destroyed pool table to take advantage of moonlight coming in through the blown-out windows. The storm-forced renovation removed a drop ceiling and revealed much better sound quality between the bar's old beaded board walls. Though the neighborhood seemed completely empty in the inky darkness of those early blacked-out nights, customers nonetheless turned up to validate Guth's chutzpah, and musicians have made it a regular gig.
Music, drinks and company have more recently been joined on the block by food with the return of Gigi's Asian Bistro, a small restaurant attached to Guth's barroom that was first opened in 2004 by Abegail Abreu. Before the flood, Gigi's was a neighborhood place with low-key Far East dcor, a BYOB policy and good, bargain-priced Thai food. Today, Gigi's is a neighborhood place with low-key Far East dcor, a BYOB policy and good, bargain-priced Mexican food.
The novel Thai-turned-taco stand transition is Abreu's improvisational approach at getting back in business. In November, she made it back into town to survey her restaurant and her house, situated directly across Banks Street from each other. Both stood at ground level and were ravaged. She planned to move elsewhere but first wanted to at least clean up Gigi's as a gesture of personal closure. She lit a grill on the sidewalk to cook food for the people helping her work, and that's when opportunity came knocking. Like a smoke signal, the fired-up grill soon attracted a stream of other people working or cleaning up in the neighborhood, and they all wanted to know if she was in business and if would she sell them lunch.
"That was pretty much when I changed my mind and realized I could do this," Abreu says.
Though green curry and spicy calamari and lemongrass pork chops had been her specialties, Abreu decided the neighborhood's post-Katrina landscape would make Mexican food both a quicker sell and an easier menu for new kitchen help to prepare. She hired some of the people who had been working on repairs to the adjacent Banks Street Bar and reopened in February.
Now she serves tacos for $2 to $3 each and big burritos for $5 or $6 stuffed with pulled pork, adobo chicken, roasted beef chunks or tofu marinated in orange and lime juices. She makes quesadillas and nachos and barbecue chicken.
Abreu plans to return some of her popular curry dishes as specials once she can get a reliable line on ingredients, but for now the remnants of Gigi's earlier "Asian bistro" concept linger only on the sign over the door and in some of the surviving dcor, like the bright, silky, Thai-style umbrellas sprouting from clay pots.
More recent additions lend the place a cantina feel better fitting its current menu. Kitchen worktables on the sidewalk provide customer seating under a tent canopy illuminated by a bare, dangling light bulb and strings of Christmas lights. Inside, the walls are lined with a post-disaster wainscoting of corrugated steel salvaged from a shed that collapsed nearby, now cleaned and whitewashed. The bartenders next door whip up margaritas and sell beers to go for restaurant patrons.
In the mornings, there are fat breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros and caf au lait. Abreu even took a stab at selling beignets, though without great response so far. Lunchtime is reliably the busiest time, and no wonder -- that's when the neighborhood has something resembling bustle these days from all the contractors and laborers repairing or demolishing houses. When workers from local utility companies turn up for lunch, they sometimes park their trucks down the block in an attempt to eat without drawing the attention of passing residents anxious about the return of their basic services. Abreu even keeps a roll of duct tape handy to conceal the logos on the workers' uniforms -- a lighthearted attempt at mealtime disguises.
Abreu's neighbors are so pleased she is back that a group of them recently presented her with a plastic tiara and gave her a crash course on regal etiquette: "They say you're not supposed to wave above the crown, always keep your hand below the crown. Did you know that? I never knew that."
Looking out from her restaurant, Abreu daily sees the remains of her ruined house with its date-stamped succession of spray-painted messages from animal-rescue workers and flood lines about equal to the petite woman's shoulders. She lives in a FEMA-provided trailer on the West Bank for now, but returns everyday to cook Mexican food in her one-time Asian bistro. Some days she wears her plastic tiara. Every day, she wears a smile that seems to float high above the flood lines still streaking her neighborhood.