The traffic cloverleaf where North Causeway Boulevard meets I-10 has the usual exit ramp amenities: a giant gas station, chain motels and a few options for road meals. But those restaurants are where things veer from the norm.
The Denny's outlet here was long ago transformed into City Diner, now a small local chain of 24-hour eateries that offers pancake plates and crawfish etouffee. Nearby is the newer addition of Chef Ron's Gumbo Stop, which looks like a roadside diner but eats like a New Orleans neighborhood restaurant.
This means red beans and rice, fried chicken and, of course, gumbo several ways. That sounds familiar, but a lot of it is done with a different accent. The seafood gumbo has a thick, medium-dark roux but also big chunks of stewed tomato, in line with an old-fashioned style hardly ever seen in local restaurants these days. And while the po-boys are straightforward, Chef Ron's Gumbo Stop also makes torpedoes, which are essentially po-boy sliders, served three at a time with a mix-and-match format of fried oysters, roast beef and such.
Their stubby, pistolette-style "torpedo rolls" are a regional specialty of Rhode Island, where restaurant owner and namesake Ron Iafrate grew up. He came to New Orleans to work in big hotel kitchens, and earlier this year he struck out on his own, taking over a 20-seat cafe that shares a Metairie strip mall with a nail salon and a gay bar.
His menu covers a lot of ground, and it has some peaks and valleys. Only those with a high tolerance for spice should approach the fiery dipping sauce for the small, thick-crusted boudin balls, but the sauteed chicken imperial came out soggy and bland. The standard-issue fries are little more than filler, but other sides including baked macaroni and a bright red, tomato-laden jambalaya are homespun and satisfying.
Then there's the bayou scampi, sort of a shrimp Creole melded with buttery, barbecue shrimp-style sauce singing with garlic and peppers, all ladled around a mound of aromatic jasmine rice. A slab of blackened catfish was closer to bronzed but was still delicious, and the daily specials are always good bargains, such as a pork chop almost the size of a laptop and covered in brown gravy and spicy-tart banana peppers.
This is a small, hard-working place that tries to do a lot — offering trays of torpedoes and gumbo by the gallon for catering needs, a full but lightly stocked bar for the dine-in crowd — and I suspect a shorter menu might better focus its tiny kitchen. Still, pull off the highway at this unassuming spot and you'll find Iafrate, perhaps a waitress and, in most cases, more food than you should finish if you plan to stay awake for the rest of the drive.