I've heard New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival food booths described as offering curious visitors a crash course in New Orleans cooking. This year I learned what an effective refresher they can be for locals as well. It was trout Baquet, served on a paper plate outdoors in a light drizzle, that reminded me I was long overdue for another visit to its natural habitat, Li'l Dizzy's Cafe in Treme.
The fish is pan-fried with a peppery, garlicky seasoning blend sealed into its crust, and it's topped by a nearly-equal amount of crabmeat sautéed with onions, parsley and more garlic until it's more like a buttery hash than a sauce. With a lemon wedge squeeze, and maybe some sides of white beans and mac and cheese, it's a straightforward Creole dish that has a lot to say.
That's the story all over Li'l Dizzy's. This is an easygoing, somewhat disheveled neighborhood cafe where stacks of soda cases share floor space with a salad bar. Many meals come straight from the buffet (served at lunch and Sunday brunch) and most of the dishes are drawn from a long family legacy of Creole soul cooking.
It goes back to Eddie's, which proprietor Wayne Baquet's father opened in 1966. Despite an obscure address on a 7th Ward back street, it drew national attention before closing in 1994. Baquet has operated a number of restaurants since, all more or less based on the family cookbook, and he opened Li'l Dizzy's in 2004. A second Li'l Dizzy's in the CBD has since closed, but in Treme, service recently expanded to add early dinner (until 8 p.m. and BYOB).
The place is busiest at lunch, when cops, women in business suits and guys in Birkenstocks all take turns along a buffet that has crab cakes one day, stuffed peppers the next and fried chicken at all times.
A buffet may not seem like the place to find legendary food, but that's where Li'l Dizzy's keeps its superlative gumbo, which is crowded with seafood and meat and defined by a thin, dark, intense roux imbued with bits of everything. Hot sausage is made with a family recipe that goes way back. Dense, brick-red and assertively spicy, these beef and pork links are plated with red beans and stacked inside sturdy po-boy loaves where their juice melds with the mayo.
If the notion of a Creole breakfast brings to mind a big brunch, weekday mornings at Li'l Dizzy's show other possibilities. Fried catfish is just as natural beside scrambled eggs as bacon and the standout is the seafood omelet po-boy, with crabmeat packed around the edges and yellow American cheese oozing from every inch.
The a la carte menus are short, and sometimes I wish there were more choices. But the overall lineup at Li'l Dizzy's reflects a long distillation of New Orleans eating.