One of the comforts local restaurants offered after Hurricane Katrina was the promise not to change too much as they reopened. Even after the storm and levee failures forced painstaking repairs, regulars could in many cases return to find essentially the same menu they knew by heart.
Katie's Restaurant & Bar went a different route. This backstreet Mid-City restaurant took more than four and a half years to reopen, and when it finally did the menu had been reworked as thoroughly as the dining room. The result is an updated, more varied and more interesting neighborhood cafe.
Katie's first opened in 1984, and some of the fundamentals that always pegged it in the Creole-Italian niche endure: Eggplant sticks and onion rings to start, red beans and rice for Monday lunch, hamburger steaks, chicken Parmesan and fried seafood platters for dinner, all confirming our city's reputation for huge portions. Katie's has shaken things up with a more modern sandwich selection, ambitious daily specials, Sunday brunch and a whole realm of pizzas with eye-catching toppings.
These can be outlandishly decadent, as epitomized by one dubbed the Boudreaux and loaded with crusty, smoky cochon de lait, whole cloves of roasted garlic, spinach and olive oil. This last item pushes the pie overboard, bogging things down into a fork and knife affair, though the prospect of all that smoky pork is hard to resist. Simpler examples can be better, especially the shrimp and artichoke pie, and even the plain old cheese pizza has a distinctive taste. The thin, yeasty crust is crimped around the edges and the cheese is a mix of mozzarella and Provel, a tangy, processed blend that's essential to St. Louis-style pizza but not much seen outside the Show Me State.
Burgers and po-boys are solid renditions of the classics, and Katie's now serves both a Cuban and a Reuben sandwich. The fact that many new items here are facsimiles of other restaurants' specialties may cost Katie's some originality points but doesn't make them any less welcome. The cochon de lait po-boy is excellent, making good use again of the kitchen's smoky pork, and it's also highly reminiscent of the famous sandwich served at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and year-round by Walker's Southern-Style Bar-B-Que. Waitresses pitch the charbroiled oysters by asserting they're "better than Drago's," the Fat City font for this much-copied sensation. In fact, they're lighter on the butter, heavier on the seasoning (and here strewn with green onions) — satisfying but hardly innovative.
The building's renovations have made Katie's dining room a bit smaller. This is a busy restaurant that can feel tight, especially as gargantuan platters and pizzas jut over the edges of tables. But while it's cramped, Katie's also is quite convivial on full nights. Diners at neighboring tables chat across the room or wander around for visits, and it seems that every other night I visit the entire crowd ends up singing "Happy Birthday" for an erstwhile stranger smiling over bread pudding. In this way, things do still feel like the same old Katie's, even if now there's a lot more on the menu.