Owner Jack Leonardi has expanded the brand name, as they say in business school, by licensing the concept to a New York City restaurateur. The franchise now has two outlets: a restaurant on the Upper West Side and a take-out stand called Jacques-Imo's To Geaux in Grand Central Terminal.
Locals still flock to the original location on Oak Street as much for the atmosphere as for the food. They want to go to that place where you can eat in a truck and do shots with the chef -- often bringing out-of-town guests along for the ride. (Tourists also have something to do with those sometimes two-hour waits.) In the past, I've eaten several great dinners there myself. The wacky Godzilla vs. Fried Green Tomato -- half a stuffed softshell crab perched with its claws in the air above a fried green tomato -- shows Jacques-Imo's at its best: the dish is heavy, rich and midway between witty and a gimmick. At each of the four meals that I've had at Jacques-Imo's since February, however, something always went terribly wrong.
It's only right that a restaurant with the attitude of a bar should be laidback. A certain lack of precision is part of Jacques-Imo's charm. The service ranges unpredictably from solid to surly. The kitchen throws the dishes together without much refinement. Often, a plate is filled to the brim with sauce, and the main ingredient -- paneed duck, calamari or rabbit tenderloin -- is dumped on top of the pool.
When the cooking gets sloppy, however, it can bring an easygoing evening to a halt. I twice tried the chicken liver appetizer, and each time the livers were so overcooked that they sucked the moisture out of my mouth. A stuffed pork chop was concrete gray, and I was left to pick at the casserole-like stuffing of ground beef and miniature shrimp.
Sometimes the flavors were underwhelming or out of balance. An oyster Brie soup, served in a bread bowl, was oddly bland. I could have sworn that the same soup reappeared as the lemon cheese sauce on the eggplant pirogue. One night, a well-cooked piece of amberjack was surrounded by a crab, avocado and spicy green tomato sauce that managed to be both too sweet and too sour. It's hard to believe that anyone tasted that sauce before it was served.
Jacques-Imo's bills itself as the home of "real Nawlins food," but some of the Creole dishes taste like nothing else in town. The scoop of jambalaya, full of chicken and surrounded by a moat of tomato sauce, was tasty, although the rice was a little dry. The tomato-based sauce in the shrimp Creole, on the other hand, was as sweet as thinned-out ketchup. I liked the corn macque choux, although the lack of creamy corn milk and the taste of cilantro made it seem almost Tex-Mex. That was appropriate, because the red beans were often dead ringers for refried beans. I tried the side of white beans once, and unfortunately I can only remember the large piece of aluminum foil that I found in the first bite.
The always-slammed kitchen staff, crammed into a tight space, looks like they are playing a sweaty game of Twister. Before Austin Leslie left Jacques-Imo's for Pampy's last November, Leslie had calmly stood over the deep fryer for five years like the eye of a hurricane. Jacques-Imo's still makes fried chicken in Leslie's signature style with slices of dill pickle and a confetti of parsley and garlic. These days, however, it's an altogether different bird; one night, the coating was dry, almost chalky. It had a faint chemical aftertaste that made me wonder if it was time to change the oil.
Jacques-Imo's does turn out some consistently strong dishes. Fish is fresh and always well cooked. The blackened redfish, for example, is an excellent entree with its unexpected hit of heat from the crab chili hollandaise. The carpetbagger steak was also cooked just right, and the caramelized onions, blue cheese and oyster tasso hollandaise complemented the steak nicely. The wrong choice of sides, such as the cloying mashed sweet potatoes or the watery potato salad, however, can derail even a good entree.
Jacques-Imo's may be a small restaurant, but a horde of diners pass through its doors every night. More than ever, the restaurant seems to be feeling the strain. One night, I saw a notice from the city slapped on Jacques-Imo's Karmann Ghia with the swamp-psychedelic paint job, which is normally parked on the street in front of the restaurant. The owner, the notice said, had five days to remove the vehicle or it could be sold for scrap metal. All kinds of things can go wrong if you don't watch the details.