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Review: Pelican Bay 

A neighborhood spot on Elysian Fields Avenue offers Louisiana comfort food

click to enlarge Chef/owner Tanzanika Ruffin prepares chicken wings, soul food favorites and more at Pelican Bay.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Chef/owner Tanzanika Ruffin prepares chicken wings, soul food favorites and more at Pelican Bay.

Sometimes diners seek dishes that challenge their concept of comfort food classics, such as elevated or decon- structed versions that are almost unrecog-nizable. At other times, they don't want these dishes reinvented — they want a really delicious, straightforward rendition. For those latter occasions, Pelican Bay is a sure bet.

  The Pelican Bay space is cavernous, with shimmery red vinyl booths spread throughout the restaurant and high-top tables for those interested in peering around the space. Sports lovers will rejoice to find 40 television screens looming throughout the dining room. Diners interested in a front row seat for all the restaurant's chatter and action should pull up a plush stool at the expansive bar, where servers sling potent, rainbow-colored daiquiris in flavors such as punchy Long Island iced tea and treacly, creamy amaretto.

  Diners would be hard pressed to find a restaurant that feels merrier or more jovial than Pelican Bay, and it seems that there's rarely a time when the space isn't playing host to some sort of reunion, birthday party or other celebration. During the lull of the quietest days, staff members can be found singing along to the bounce remix of Monica's "Don't Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)" or shaking their hips to Outkast's "Aquemini" while stirring up a Technicolor mixed drink. The restaurant's staff are consistently some of the warmest and most earnest in the city, creating the kind of convivial atmosphere that could inspire diners to get up mid-meal and bust a move themselves.

  The menu reads like a what's what of soul food and sports-bar favorites jammed into a single list, serving up tailgating classics alongside heartier entrees, and there's a build-your-own pizza option. Everything arrives at the table hot from the open kitchen, avoiding the pitfalls of many wing-and-burger spots by keeping dishes straightforward and crafted in-house, including freshly made tortilla chips.

  A sizable selection of burger options is available, but first-time visitors would be remiss to overlook the chicken thigh sandwich. The juicy, tender thigh meat is encased in a crackly, deep-fried crust and sandwiched in a soft, springy sesame seed bun. If you've ever needed a proper introduction to chicken thighs, this is the dish. The Pelican Grill is similar to a seafood version of the "meat and three" Southern classic, anchored by a simply prepared, flaky grilled Gulf fish (tilapia when I ordered it) that has been marinated in ample amounts of minced garlic. The main attraction is served with a choice of side, and it's best to spring for the vegan greens, rather than a less-than-inspiring side salad.

  An order of fried pickles — slivered as thin as playing cards and lightly battered — arrived looking like a basket of edible, emerald-hued stained glass. The pickles are an easy snack to devour with their pliable chewiness and tang. Dense and meaty chicken wings are generously slathered in a choice of one of more than a half-dozen sauces. While the teriyaki sauce impresses with a long lingering, palate-soothing brown sugar aftertaste, the sweet sriracha delivers the kind of tongue-tingling slow burn that's simultaneously steamy and honeyed.

  Any basket of regular or sweet potato french fries can be dressed with a sprinkling of one's favorite wing spread. The earthiness of the sweet potato fries coated in a trickle of lemon-pepper sauce is a robust pairing, surprising the senses with pops of heat and zips of citrus.

  Macaroni and cheese leaps to the top of the pack as a side item, arriving as a bubbling cauldron of elbow noodles and creamy bechamel topped with a thick, gooey layer of cheese that twists and twirls on the fork. The onion rings, however, leave much to be desired, with too much breading masking any onion flavor.

  Above all else, Pelican Bay offers low-key, neighborhood dining and food that's rib-sticking and reliable without being overwrought.

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