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Downhome Downtown 

A tiny, backstreet soul kitchen keeps the gumbo pot simmering

I worked downtown for a few years in an office that had all the corporate trappings -- millionaire executives ensconced in the corner suites and a receptionist known as Miss Debra who quickly turned me into her personal lunchtime delivery boy. A few times a week, she would ring my extension and ask if I wouldn't mind running down the street to fetch her lunch when I went out for mine. For her, it was a convenience. For me, it was an education in New Orleans soul food.

She sent me to great little backstreet joints and halfway-hidden barroom kitchens to get her Friday seafood platter, her Wednesday stewed chicken or her any-day quart of yaka mein soup with extra Saltines and two ketchup packs. Eventually I learned that whatever she ordered was a much better lunch than the turkey wrap or burrito I had in mind, and I began following her example. Sometimes we ate together in the office break room, where I would struggle to finish the whole bulging carton of beans and rice and chicken and pork chops in one sitting and Miss Debra would brew a fresh pot of coffee to keep us from nodding off in an afternoon food stupor.

"Those sisters know how to hook us up, don't they?" she'd say, smacking her lips.

A lot of those places folded after Hurricane Katrina, though a few are still around hooking people up as always, like Two Sisters Restaurant on Roman Street (just lakeside of North Claiborne) and the Hobnobber on Carondelet Street.

But new places are opening, and you don't need to work with someone like my old lunch mentor to find them. I discovered one during a recent weekday walk through the CBD when I spied a pair of ladies emerging from a storefront with what looked like enough take-out lunch cartons for half the office. Called CafŽ Madea's, the restaurant is on familiar turf for downtown office workers. For years before the storm, the tiny space had been Le Petit Paris, a great French cafe and probably the only place in the city to get a paper plate of beef bourguignonne for $7. More recently, it was a sandwich shop called Bon Mange Cafe.

Now, however, it is all soul food, slow-cooked but served almost instantly from a line of steam trays. There are a handful of small tables, but most people order their meals to go. Cartons are stacked three or four high in plastic bags and gumbo comes in Styrofoam cups the size of an extra-large daiquiri. Men in burgundy chef garb banter with familiar faces on the other side of the service line and a woman at the cash register keeps the constant flow of phone orders straight.

One reason the operation is so efficient is its small menu, which follows the weekly schedule of red beans on Monday and seafood on Friday. Some constants through the week include a potato salad that is yellow, creamy, flecked with black pepper and crunchy with bits of chopped pickle. There is also excellent cornbread that is as dense as wedding cake and nearly as moist.

Wednesday is probably the best day to eat at CafŽ Madea's because that's when the kitchen works up its gravy recipes. The pork chops are so juicy and flavorful that it's impossible to tell where the meat stops and the smothering gravy begins. These are wide but thin chops and the only tender things about them are the soft exclamations people tend to utter as they eat. They make a perfect example of humble food elevated to delicious heights, but more to the point, they make a very good, filling lunch. A Wednesday side dish of mustard greens is terrific, meatier than some jambalayas I've encountered, and it holds more of the flavor in the leaf than in the likker.

Wednesday's menu also offers a wonderful chicken potpie. It has a thick gravy, good-sized chunks of white and dark meat and a crisp-edged crust. The "pie" is baked in a huge, rectangular pan and cut into portions like lasagna, so the crust really becomes more like ridges of texture and body in the smothered filling than something that holds the whole thing together. Served piping hot, it is utterly delicious and warms the heart in a way that feels good even on a blisteringly hot downtown afternoon.

Thursday's ribs are righteous, eight-inch-long slabs of baby-backs with a thick sauce that is mellow and succulent. The meat comes off the bone very easily but does not quite go to pieces on you. It keeps its composure and disappears fast.

Friday is fish and gumbo day. The gumbo is of the rusty-red Creole variety, with a fairly thin, broth-like roux and a great deal of sausage. The fried catfish comes as meaty chunks rather than the thin, standard-issue fillet, and they are covered in something more like peppery fried chicken batter than the familiar fish-fry mix. The cafe uses a soft, chewy submarine sandwich loaf rather than crusty po-boy bread, but at least the guys working the line cram an awful lot of fish into it. Friday's other fish is grilled tilapia, which is liberally seasoned as the fillets crackle away on the restaurant's small, busy grill.

CafŽ Madea's makes a nicely sized burger on a toasted bun for less than $4. It looks good, but I can't report on the quality. When confronted with the choice of a burger or a carton of smothered beef pot roast with rice, greens, yams and cornbread, I ask myself, "What would Miss Debra do?" I always order the carton.

click to enlarge Cherelle Norman, James William and Tyron Norman serve - soul-food favorites at Cafe Madea's. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Cherelle Norman, James William and Tyron Norman serve soul-food favorites at Cafe Madea's.
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