Thanks to Johnny Sanchez, 2015 may be the year New Orleanians embrace insects on their dinner plates.
Between gobbling tacos and sipping mezcal, diners at Johnny Sanchez can scoop up chunky guacamole speckled with an unusual topping — chapulines. A favorite of street vendors in Mexico City and Oaxaca, chapulines are grasshoppers toasted with a lime-salt seasoning. The crispy, one-bite snacks are a tangy, tamarind-like foil to the buttery avocado.
While cockroach ice cream likely won't hit local menus any time soon, the introduction of chapulines and dried, ground maguey worms as a drink garnish at Johnny Sanchez is a giant leap forward for the inclusion of exotic ingredients long considered delectable across the globe.
The collaborative project of chef John Besh and Mexican cuisine authority Aaron Sanchez, Johnny Sanchez seamlessly mixes the regional flavors of Mexico (from Michoacan to the Yucatan) with Louisiana ingredients and sensibilities.
Located in the former home of French bistro Sainte Marie, Johnny Sanchez has festive and vibrant ambience while remaining family friendly, catering equally to solo diners on missions exploring the smoky depths of the mezcal menu and parties of 10 bursting with chip-munching youngsters. Gone is Sainte Marie's dimly lit elegance, and in its place is a restaurant featuring poppy bursts of color, sea anemone-like chandeliers and smartly placed Dia de los Muertos knickknacks. There's a steady hum of energy inside Johnny Sanchez, making a restaurant that seems crowded feel like a kind of bustling street fair.
There are a handful of head-turning entrees, including wood-fired skirt steak massaged with adobo and a flavorful mix of milky crema and zippy pickled onions atop mole-doused lamb enchiladas, but taco selections steal the show. Plates feature two tacos to an order, making them ideal for sharing. The goat tacos are light years ahead of others in the city, with fork-tender meat caramelized around the edges and juicy throughout. Beef tongue also spotlights the restaurant's commitment to taking a chewy piece of meat and taming it through a combination of lengthy stewing and addition of the spicy berry notes of guajillo peppers. Louisiana influences peek through in the cauliflower tacos, with a thick swath of pecan-chipotle butter serving as an anchor for each tortilla and sunny bits of satsuma brightening the bundles of roasted cauliflower.
Gulf tuna tostadas are amuse bouche-sized, with glistening cubes of fresh fish piled neatly onto four miniature tortilla chips that, unfortunately, look and taste like the ubiquitous circular tortilla chips found in grocery store aisles. A sprinkling of ebony-hued caviar adds a welcome brininess, but the almost microscopic garlic chip perched on each tuna bite proves to be too dainty, adding very little to the dish.
Empanadas are a heartier option at roughly the same price ($12 for empanadas, $13 for tostadas), featuring a half dozen small, crackly, edible satchels. The empanada pastry has a toothsome, pliable snap, each bite revealing an interior chock-full of mildly spiced, succulent ground chorizo. The empanadas are enhanced by an accompanying mole with a mesquite-tinged, smoky undercurrent.
The drinks menu includes an impressive array of tequilas and mezcals, including a number of high-end extra anejo (aged at least three years in oak barrels) tequila options. Unfortunately, many drinks on the cocktail list feature bourbon or gin instead of tequila. Johnny Sanchez should offer more tequila and mezcal cocktails, giving first-time agave imbibers an easier path to explore the eatery's Mexican flavors.