After all, Orleans Seafood is a place that smacks of mistaken identity. The restaurant serves local fried seafood, chicken wings and po-boys, plus a smattering of Chinese dishes, and does all this in a building that was formerly a Taco Bell and still looks just like a Taco Bell.
I drove past it for months before I realized it was not a Taco Bell. There's the arched, sort of mission-style design of the windows, the vaguely Aztec purple and blue pattern rimming the building and even the frame of the big elevated sign outside in the familiar Taco Bell shape, although the logo itself is missing. I'd wager that people have arrived here on hazy nights fully expecting a meal of Mexi-Melts and 7 Layer Burritos.
Instead, you walk inside to find a fast food dining room that looks like it has been taken over by a local Vietnamese family. The counter has been nudged forward a bit to enlarge the kitchen and the illuminated menu board above the cashiers is augmented by specials handwritten on construction paper, but the room still has the unmistakable stamp of corporate real estate design.
The food, of course, is different. The seafood and meat po-boys are decent renditions of the local favorites and the fried shrimp salads are basically shrimp po-boys on beds of chopped romaine lettuce instead of bread.
The chicken and sausage gumbo is one of the best things to get here. You can taste the smokiness of the brick-red sausage coins through the roux, which is fairly thick with okra, pepper and celery, and the gumbo is packed wall to wall with chicken. The "small" is a 16 oz. serving that costs $3. The large is $5 and has twice the volume. The small is a fine lunch on its own and, served in a tall Styrofoam cup, it can be easily eaten in the car, perhaps while driving, though I don't recommend it. The seafood gumbo is identical except for the addition of a dozen or so shrimp and a dollar added to the price.
All portion control is out the window here, which is no doubt part of the appeal for the restaurant's regulars. The lids on just about all the Styrofoam boxes and even the salad containers have to be taped down to remain closed, and even then they are so overstuffed that chicken wings or shrimp tails jut out.
The list of Chinese dishes on the menu starts with General Tso's chicken and continues down the ranks of his conventional companions -- sesame chicken, pepper steak, shrimp with broccoli, that sort of thing. Combo plates go for between $6 and $7 and seriously weigh no less than 2 pounds. That isn't shell weight or bones, either, and it's hard to see how any one person could finish it all.
Most of the Chinese food isn't very good, but there are a few worthy exceptions. One is the shrimp fried rice. This isn't the hard-grained, oily stuff you're afraid of, but rather the rice has a nice toasty flavor and is mixed with lots of moist egg, plenty of black pepper and lots of the good-sized shrimp that appear to be Orleans Seafood's calling card.
All the Chinese food can be helped simply by ordering it spicy. The counter person will confirm you know what you're asking for and then the kitchen will proceed to spike your food with minced garlic and hot red chili peppers. This treatment did wonders for General Tso's chicken, even if it started with the usual bits of dark thigh meat in a soft, thick batter with the normal sweet, sticky sauce. Ordered spicy, the chicken was downright crunchy with garlic and that cloying sauce came alive like a sweet-hot candy fireball had melted over it all.
Orleans Seafood is here because the Taco Bell at this spot didn't reopen after Hurricane Katrina. Neither did a lot of its national chain cohorts along flood-damaged South Claiborne Avenue. The adjacent block is filled with an abandoned Winn Dixie grocery store which appears to be deteriorating by the week. A few blocks down the avenue, there's a boarded-up Pizza Hut and a flood-stained KFC that still advertises specials that were posted outside in August 2005.
But the places that are back seem to be doing good business, like the McDonald's franchise across the street that is as well lit as a Texas border crossing and about as busy. Orleans Seafood is busy too, albeit doing a different sort of business than its Taco Bell predecessor. On one visit, a trio of young Brazilian women in reflective highway safety vests sat eating from big plates of red beans, an Orleans Seafood specialty, while in the center of the table they shared a whole fried fish -- bones, fins, face and all -- wrapped up in aluminum foil. When I discreetly inquired where the fish had come from, they smiled and whispered that they had brought it from home.
So it goes on the fast food frontier of New Orleans, where half the customers at cheap lunch places these days will work off their meals hanging sheetrock, hauling debris and digging up leaky plumbing as the city rebuilds.