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A cluster of reopened restaurants breathes new life into a hard-hit Mid-City neighborhood

There are two single dollar bills displayed in a frame above the cash register at Juan's Flying Burrito on South Carrollton Avenue. One is the first dollar the Tex-Mex restaurant earned when it opened in Mid-City in 2001. The other is the restaurant's "second first dollar," explains manager Randy Winters. He framed the dollar after ringing the restaurant's first sale on June 28 -- the day it opened after rebuilding from damages caused by neck-deep floodwater.

There was a time in some New Orleans neighborhoods when every building was a question mark. Virtually without exception, they were empty in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina and it was anyone's guess whether each would become a viable residence or business again. For the businesses that made up the restaurant row around the Mid-City intersection of Canal Street and Carrollton Avenue, many of those question marks are being replaced with new or rebuilt eateries, like Juan's.

Before the storm, the area had been the scene of vigorous restaurant development, spurred in part by the 2004 construction of the streetcar line and rising property values. While the population in the area is still a far cry from its pre-storm level, restaurants are rapidly returning as insurance proceeds finally arrive to fund extensive repairs or new owners take over locations given up by their previous occupants.

"We know that area is coming back and it has a lot to do with the people. When we were open before the storm, they were so loyal and you just have to reciprocate," says Warren Chapoton, one of the owners of the Juan's restaurants in Mid-City and Uptown, as well as Slice Pizzeria on St. Charles Avenue.

One thing that made the area attractive before the storm was the number and diversity of restaurants there, Chapoton says, so he's glad to see others returning as well.

"The area was this destination for diners. If one place was too busy to get in right away, people would just go somewhere else a block or two down the street. So I feel like the more the better for that area," he says.

Two new restaurants and an existing bar with new food service have surfaced in a row of contiguous, resurrected businesses on the first block of North Carrollton Avenue. Rooster's Grill, formerly Lil' Ray's Diner, has been slinging burgers, po-boys, bubbling skillets of BBQ shrimp, grilled tuna salads and fried seafood platters since early June. Right next door, the building that housed CafŽ Hola is expected to reopen in the coming weeks as Doson's Noodle House. The restaurant had been an Uptown fixture on Oak Street, doing business for many years under the memorable name Chinese's Chinese Restaurant before owner Doson Ha changed the name and added more dishes from his native Vietnam. Ha had planned to move his restaurant to Mid-City last year and was nearing completion on a renovation of the former CafŽ Hola location when the storm struck.

Next door to Doson's new home is Wit's Inn, the long-time Mid-City barroom that has reopened with a new kitchen serving pizza, sandwiches and calzones. Dennis Scheuerman, one of the owners, previously ran the restaurant Amberjack's in Lakeview, which he sold before the storm.

The area has been home to some of the city's oldest and most popular casual, neighborhood restaurants and most of these plan to return. Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream & Confectionary expects to reopen this summer to celebrate its 101st anniversary, since celebrations planned for its centennial year in 2005 were cut short by Katrina. Work is progressing to bring the Italian classic Venezia back to business in Mid-City, while its second location on Central Avenue in Jefferson has been open since late last year. Mandina's Restaurant on Canal Street is being completely rebuilt for its anticipated reopening this fall.

Liuzza's Restaurant on Bienville Street, which opened as a barroom only around Jazz Fest, now has its kitchen back in action serving a limited menu that nonetheless covers many of its old favorites -- among them: fried green pickles, po-boys, fried green tomatoes and the Frenchuletta, a hot muffuletta served on French bread. Katie's Restaurant around the corner also plans to reopen.

At Christian's Restaurant, the former church that was by far the neighborhood's most upscale restaurant, owner Bobby Bergeron says repairs are underway though a reopening is months away.

Still, for some restaurants in the flood-damaged area, Katrina was doomsday. The once-bustling Pho Tau Bay next to Brocato's will not reopen. The family owners say they will concentrate on their Gretna location -- the only one of four pre-storm Pho Tau Bay restaurants they have reopened in the area. They are also opening other restaurants in Pennsylvania, where other family members now live.

At Michael's Mid-City Grill, a sign offering the gutted Canal Street property for lease bespeaks the end of that long-time burger joint. Veteran restaurateurs Gerard and Eveline Crozier have said they will not reopen their Chateaubriand Steakhouse and there is no visible work underway at the Brewhouse Grill, the large brewpub and restaurant that replaced the Acadian Brewery on North Carrollton Avenue in 2004. That's the same story at Manuel's Hot Tamales, Jerusalem Deli, New York Pizza and Kanpai all near Canal and Carrollton, while the former Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits location at the high-profile intersection has been closed for years.

While the situation for each property can include a complex equation of leases, landlords, insurance pay-outs and other post-storm circumstances, the question marks that remain over some restaurant sites may not linger for long as the area redevelops. Juan's Flying Burrito owner Chapoton, for example, says he and his partners are eyeing potential Mid-City locations to expand their other restaurant, Slice Pizzeria.

click to enlarge Juan's Flying Burrito is one of the Mid-City restaurants - that's reopened. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Juan's Flying Burrito is one of the Mid-City restaurants that's reopened.
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