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Frying Times 

As a devastated neighborhood rebuilds, a seafood market does the cooking.

If faith in your neighborhood could be layered on a po-boy like fried shrimp, the ones at Zimmer's Seafood would truly be overstuffed and they would come dressed with a generous serving of local color to boot.

Zimmer's is a seafood market and take-out-only po-boy joint. It's a family affair run by Craig Zimmer, a commercial fisherman, and his wife Charleen, a former hairdresser with a flair for whipping up simple, seriously delicious food, like marinated crabs, potatoes stuffed with shrimp and cheese and bread pudding soaked in white chocolate sauce.

The Zimmers opened their namesake market in 1980 in the heart of Gentilly, at the corner of St. Anthony and Mirabeau streets, and marked the seasons for a quarter of a century by dishing out boiled crawfish, crabs and shrimp to the families of regular customers who lived nearby. Also nearby was the London Avenue Canal. After its floodwalls failed last year, all that was left of Zimmer's were the cinderblock walls surrounding its flooded interior. Even the roof had been tossed to the ground by the storm. But the family rebuilt, more or less on their own, and reopened in June.

Today, their daughters and other relatives help out on one side of the counter, wrapping raw and boiled shrimp in yesterday's newspaper. On the other side of the counter, the faces of their neighbors, old friends and flabbergasted newcomers form a line along the cooler case of iced-down tilapia filets, shucked oysters and soft-shell crabs.

The flabbergasted faction in that line is on account of the starkly different scene on the other side of the bustling shop's threshold. Unless you parachute down from the sky, the only way to get to Zimmer's is to pass block after block of ravaged houses, an overgrown testament to the disaster that visited the neighborhood. FEMA trailers dot the landscape, but in the eerie stillness of the streets, it can seem like no one is around. Yet, at lunchtime and just before closing in the early evening, Zimmer's pulls off something like everyday magic -- if only in the confines of this small market, Gentilly looks and sounds just like it did in that distant past of just more than a year ago.

But people come here for more than just a taste of normalcy, and the French fries are a dead giveaway for what else they're after. They don't look like much at first, just paper trays of crinkle fries, the kind with the little ridge running across them like a puffed up accordion. But they are expertly fried -- crispy, light brown and always served piping hot -- and they prove a harbinger of the terrific fried seafood that gets the same careful treatment. Zimmer's fried shrimp are particularly excellent. The medium-sized shrimp are neatly encrusted by flavorful batter, not smothered by it. That keeps the meat tender, moist and tasting much more like shrimp than like batter. The fried oysters are fat and salty inside a cornmeal batter crust, and the catfish filets are thin and very crunchy. It's easy to snap off pieces to eat with your hands like chips.

One of Zimmer's oldest neighbors recently returned with the reopening of John Gendusa's Bakery just around the corner. Each morning, a cart of seeded, Italian-style loaves is rolled over from Gendusa's for Zimmer's to use for po-boys. In addition to the fried seafood versions, Zimmer's has a short list of land-based po-boys including a home-style roast beef. Big slabs of the meat are forked out of a crockpot and piled generously on the bread, which is up to the task of containing the gravy.

Craig Zimmer doesn't do much commercial fishing these days, but his dockside connections are still evident in the shrimp that have been landing in his boiling pot lately. Large, shiny and with heads full of fat, they all look like they came from good families and the boil they are put through gives them a lip-smacking spiciness that hits just a moment or two after you eat them. Zimmer's dispatches boiled crabs by the hamper load each day, and a fair amount of them end up in a distinctive crab salad. This is not a fork-and-knife salad, but one that requires a shell cracker and a good stack of napkins. The crab is quartered and marinated in-shell in olive oil, garlic, lemon, Italian dressing, celery and parsley. It takes some work to dig the sweet, white meat out, but it is an addictive -- if messy -- pastime.

Dense, heavy stuffed artichokes are another specialty of Zimmer's. They get an unusual assist here by being steamed in the same pot used for seafood, which imparts an undercurrent of crab boil spice and flavor to the otherwise bready filling.

Like most of the food here, the artichokes are meant to be taken home, since accommodations for dining at the shop are nil. Still, eating on site affords a chance to witness the magnetic effect that a familiar neighborhood favorite has on New Orleanians, even if the surroundings have been distorted almost beyond recognition. Hang around outside long enough to eat a plastic container of gumbo on the hood of your car and you might see -- as I did one day -- a postal carrier, a guy in vintage combat fatigues, half the members of a girl's volleyball team, a dusty construction crew and a nun each appear in rapid succession on the sidewalk on their way into the little market, drawn by reputation, word-of-mouth or maybe just the wafting aroma of a boil in the wilderness of reconstruction.

click to enlarge A group of regulars bite into overstuffed po-boys at - Zimmer's Seafood in Gentilly. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
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