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Real Good Food 

Regulars prefer to swarm and not fall in line for THE REAL PIE MAN's gumbo, sweet potato pie and crawfish bread.

Finagling lunch at The Real Pie Man in Gretna during the heaving noon hour takes a combination of luck and a certain finesse, similar to what you will need to score tickets for Garrison Keillor's only ever Saenger Theatre performance or a Zulu coconut. Like any restaurant where it's worth waiting half an hour for a pint of crawfish stew, The Real Pie Man has a personality only someone willing to wait half an hour for a pint of good crawfish stew could appreciate.

The first trick is finding someone to tell you to hang a right at the Wig Fair, where Stumpf Boulevard crosses Franklin Street, and then to continue on past residential blocks and the Gretna Bingo Palace -- not a neighborhood most diners would be wont to explore for a solid lunch. I learned about it from an employee at a medical clinic where nurses deliberate daily over where pharmaceutical reps should order bribery lunches in exchange for two minutes of the doctors' time. The Real Pie Man's red beans could buy them five, he said.

Those lunches were catered, a steady source of The Real Pie Man's business. But I'm not convinced the food would taste as satisfying if it was acquired simply by sending a fax and receiving a delivery from the back of a pick-up truck. Call me a purist, but I believe in lines. You can learn oodles about a place by what happens in its lines. A line is reassurance that you're not the only fool willing to wait half an hour for a pint of good crawfish stew.

Curiously, regulars at The Real Pie Man prefer a disordered swarm to the arcane custom of the single-file line. Since the working vocabulary there doesn't seem to include the phrase "Who's next?," you'll need to adopt an ordering style somewhere between batting an eyelash in the cashier's direction and yelling "My turn!" Careful: I witnessed one insolent gal get hazed out of the place by other patrons' vibes alone before her gumbo was ready. And no one wants to miss that file gumbo, a spicy, light-bodied broth thick with smoked sausage, chicken, shrimp and rice. Its popularity ensures that owners Cedric and Carolyn Singleton (no relation to Omar the Pie Man) spend as much time at the kettle as they spend pressing homemade dough into pie tins.

I have no theories for the inexplicably long wait, only observations on techniques some customers employed to make it less agonizing ... for themselves: downing noisy slurps of Sunkist at metronomic intervals; testing out every possible ring on a cellular phone at least three times, including "La Cucaracha"; and complaining loudly about the weather -- whatever the weather -- to no one in particular.

Other customers debated endlessly over which sweet potato pies they would choose from inside the glass pastry case once their turn to order finally came around. The individual pies were wrapped in plastic and propped against one another in silver trays as uniformly as a box of No. 2 pencils, which made this debating especially entertaining to watch. In the end, I think they were wise to take the namesake dish so seriously. While sweet potato pies exuded pumpkin pie-type spices, toasty pecan ones were fabulously easy on the sugar; coconut pies tasted like candy bar innards, and apple pie tops split to reveal a cinnamony filling.

The restaurant's only menu is a single, tattered sheet of paper taped to a counter far from the entrance; only binoculars could render the tiny, graying print legible from the position I usually found myself in, leaning against the beverage cooler. Since no one near the menu ever glanced in its direction, I took to mimicking the most common orders: gumbo, jambalaya dirty and rich as a portobello mushroom, and crawfish pasta made with pasta spirals and the kind of melted orange cheese we're not supposed to admit is delicious.

Once you make it out with what I promise will be blistering hot food, eat in your car like everyone else, or outside on the restaurant's bright blue window ledge like I did. Crawfish bread, which was like a spicy tuna melt made with pink tails, green bell pepper, and three-cheese taffy on a mini baguette, will get soggy otherwise. Peppery pies riddled with crabmeat and celery-infused filling are already soggy, but you won't want to change a thing about them if you eat them hot. A plate of wilting fried trout was the only real menu disappointment, and the only high-end item I sampled -- high-end meaning you won't get change back on a five.

And that's your final tip: after lunch at The Real Pie Man, you'll be rich.

There's a new, second location on Manhattan Boulevard where you can buy chicken in a box and fish fried by the pound. Otherwise the food is the same, the place sparkles, the service is faster, and you can sit down inside with a beer. I only ate there because I had to. For a pint of crawfish stew that's worth my half hour, I prefer to swarm.

click to enlarge Ashley Singleton, Cheangeles Singleton and Gail Johnson make the food at THE REAL PIE MAN's well worth the wait. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Ashley Singleton, Cheangeles Singleton and Gail Johnson make the food at THE REAL PIE MAN's well worth the wait.
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