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Chow Down Downtown 

The lack of a quick and comfortable place for workers and visitors in the Central Business District (CBD) to sit down and eat a custom burrito led entrepreneur Shane Finkelstein and fiance/business partner Courtney Gibson to fill the void with Nacho Mama's Mexican Grill (721 Common St., 558-0830) in April 2001. They later sensed an unfilled desire for chicken, no-nonsense side dishes, and fresh salads done every way and a couple of weeks ago opened Mother Cluckers (132 Carondelet St., 558-0099) around the corner from their other eatery.

It may seem an odd path switch -- from Mexican cuisine to chicken -- but Finkelstein says the inspiration for both was the same: "That's what I like to eat."

Nacho Mama's offers lunch customers a bountiful menu of burritos, tacos, tostadas, nachos and more, all custom-constructed before diners' eyes in an assembly-line setup from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. "You get exactly what you want done in front of your eyes," Finkelstein says. "The ingredients for most of the menu items are the same; it's all in how you package them. We're not authentic Mexican; we use better ingredients. Nothing you eat here comes out of a can; it's all fresh. We make our own sauces. We make our own beans. Our chips are fried fresh. We don't use lard; it's a healthier product." Several versions of quesadillas are cooked on a grill in the kitchen.

The menu expands for dinner, served from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, to include flautas, chimichangas, spring rolls, Mexican pizza and even fish dishes. Those who stop by on their way home from work will find happy hour drink specials from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., including two-for-one imports on Wednesday, two-for-one house margaritas and live music on Thursday and $2 Corona beers and two tequila shots for the price of one on Friday with a DJ spinning discs in the background. The downstairs is bustling at mealtime, but those who want a quieter, more intimate table can go upstairs, where the decor is more refined, with metal tables, velvet couches and a fabric-draped ceiling.

Mother Cluckers has a different atmosphere, with brightly colored walls and furniture and whimsical painted murals of fowl participating in quintessential New Orleans events such as a jazz funeral and a Mardi Gras parade. The eatery sticks to basics when it comes to chicken, serving up spicy wings and chicken tenders in order sizes that range from a half dozen to 50 pieces and a dozen sauces to choose from. Down-home side dishes include macaroni and cheese, waffle fries, baked beans, jambalaya, green beans, cole slaw, potato salad and sweet potato fries. Soon, Finkelstein says, the restaurant will add fried and grilled chicken sandwiches to the mix.

Salad lovers will find a garden full of choices at Mother Cluckers, such as the Aloha Salad, which starts with mixed greens tossed with heart of palms, Mandarin oranges, pineapple, tomatoes, sesame seeds and shredded Jack cheese, drizzled with raspberry-orange vinaigrette. Other selections include a Roman Holiday Salad that has a base of rotini pasta dressed up with standard Italian vegetable favorites and a Salad Named Desire, spotlighting fried chicken strips and lots of other goodies.

"The chicken part of the menu is a work in progress," says Finkelstein. "I didn't know that much about chicken when I started, but I had a passion for salads." The expansive salad menu reflects that interest, with choices of Greek or Caesar styles, buffalo-style chicken strips, chicken salad, grilled chicken and about two dozen choices of items diners can toss into the Build Your Own salad. Plus, the staff makes all the salad dressings fresh daily in-house.

"Wings were something we didn't have a lot of here (in New Orleans)," Finkelstein says in explaining his focus on chicken. "We thought it would attract customers who might not like Mexican food. The salads really bring in the CBD people. People like ... a healthier alternative."

The location, just a half-block off Canal Street, also makes it more noticeable to tourists strolling through the CBD, and it gives Nacho Mama's regulars a convenient and affordable alternative for lunch and dinner. Plus, Mother Cluckers offers free delivery in the French Quarter and CBD.

Not one to remain dormant for long, Finkelstein -- who will exchange wedding vows with Gibson in November with a party at Nacho Mama's -- says he plans to add Monday and Tuesday to his dinner schedule at the Mexican grill in the next couple of weeks, and soon will offer catering services featuring the cuisine of both restaurants. He also is looking for locations to expand one or both of the venues Uptown.

"There's a need," he says. "We have a lot of regulars; it's a really nice place for them to go to get away from the job for a moment. I can't think of any other place in the CBD that has our atmosphere."

click to enlarge Customer Gail LaVigne gives a smile of approval to her first chicken lunch at the new Mother Cluckers restaurant downtown.
  • Customer Gail LaVigne gives a smile of approval to her first chicken lunch at the new Mother Cluckers restaurant downtown.
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