Joe Sepie's Cafe
4402 Jefferson Hwy., 324-5613
Lunch Tue.-Sat., dinner Wed.-Sat.
Roast beef po-boys, tamales, retro burgers
The room is stark even by po-boy joint standards
Attention to the little things adds up to big, memorable renditions of local comfort food.
A new restaurant trading in such established local standards as roast beef po-boys, tamales and onion rings opens itself to stern inspection by a dining public with highly specific standards for comparison. It's a good thing, then, that Pete Theriot had ironclad ideals about what a po-boy, tamale and plate of onion rings should be when he opened Joe Sepie's Cafe in 2007.
Theriot was in the metal fabrication business until Hurricane Katrina wrecked his Metairie shop. Eating his way through neighborhood joints over the years, he developed a sharp sense of what some places did right and what shortcuts left others lacking. For his second career and first restaurant, he's applied plenty from observed best-practices. And if his kitchen takes any shortcuts, I haven't stumbled upon them in a year of periodic meals there.
The restaurant's Jefferson Highway storefront doesn't look like much. Change a few furnishings and it could be a travel agency or hardware store. And yet, from an invisible kitchen comes a familiar range of New Orleans comfort foods done uncommonly well.
Roast beef is such a specialty it gets three renditions, each starting with a shredded debris-style roast. The "ultimate" roast beef adds a distinctive steak sauce that is thicker and richer than most gravies, like a light demi-glace. Swiss cheese encases the meat like a cap over the bottom half of the loaf so cheese-walled pouches of beef can dangle off the sides without dropping — an endearing effect for those of us who like to ogle our food before eating.
Cajun-style roast beef has a tangy gravy that makes the sandwich very juicy but not quite sloppy, and the roast has so much bay leaf you occasionally need to remove a whole leaf between bites. For the barbecue beef, the same debris-style meat is simmered down further in a sauce that is about as smoky as any stovetop barbecue sauce can get without actual smoke. As an example of Theriot's appreciation for little things, he has different lettuce for different styles of roast beef po-boys — Romaine leaves for the "ultimate," shredded for the Cajun-style.
Tamales got a rocky start here, but their evolution in the past two years again shows Theriot's monkish devotion to detail. Initially they were quite dry. So, drawing on tinkering skills from years in the manufacturing business, Theriot reengineered his kitchen's grinder until it produced a tamale he liked. These paper-wrapped, cigar-size tubes now are dark and dense with a mellow spice level and juice that tastes more of salty beef than grease.
Another specialty is the "splat burger," a throwback to the drive-in era of burgers made by slapping a 3-ounce patty on a hot, flat griddle. It's the antithesis of today's ever-bigger burger, but the result has a crisp exterior, a ribbon of tender interior meat and a seemingly inordinate amount of character for its diminutive size. The best sides are french fries — fresh cut, crisp and glistening — and onion rings made with sweet Vidalias and a batter that clings resolutely to each strand.
A pressed muffuletta on ciabatta is about as offbeat as things get at Joe Sepie's. But this place is not about innovative cooking, it's about a meticulous approach to unglamorous but essential details.