Turkeys were prepared in countless New Orleans kitchens this holiday season, but in the Cuban kitchen at the back of the Mid-City corner grocery Regla Store, attention turned to roasted pork legs. With the shape and size of bagpipes, weighing more than 20 pounds on the bone, these pork legs are the traditional centerpieces for some local Cuban families at Thanksgiving, Christmas and parties for football games so momentous they call for feasts.
The store prepares these on special order, though these same legs — thoroughly steeped in the classic Cuban marinade mojo — power the store's Saturday plate-lunch special of roast pork, as well as its everyday specialty of Cuban and medianoche sandwiches. Order a sandwich and pork is sliced from the bone, layered on French bread (or on sweet, yellow rolls for the medianoche) and pressed until the mojo's garlic and sour orange flavors seep over the ham, Swiss and pickles.
The pork leg, holiday custom and daily staple, is the pride of Carmen Garces, who runs Regla Store with her son David Gutierrez and his wife Lisa. Garces' name should be familiar to local aficionados of Cuban cooking, because before Hurricane Katrina she operated Garces Restaurant at the same address. It opened in the 1970s and until the storm was a quiet, backstreet joint with trim curtains, modest furnishings and such a homey feel you expected Garces to join your table as soon as she finished serving supper.
After Katrina, her ex-husband opened a Garces Restaurant in Kenner (which has since closed) but Garces and her son decided a grocery would fare better in their flood-ravaged neighborhood. This tucked-away pocket of Mid-City still looks like it's in recovery mode, and from the crumbling street, Regla does not seem too inviting. Inside, however, you find a perfectly friendly New Orleans neighborhood hybrid, a deli offering po-boys and Monday red beans along with the Cuban standards for which Garces was known.
The kitchen is open and guiltless, equipped like that of a family home with the addition of a fryer and the all-important foil-lined sandwich press. Here, mother and son make tropical fruit shakes and cook marinated Cuban steaks in small skillets for plate lunches or their Uruguay sandwich, a beef- and ham-filled relative to the Cuban. If you order black beans and Garces decides they need more seasoning, she might snatch some onions and peppers from the grocery's tiny produce rack and slice them into the simmering pot.
The basic po-boy menu is undistinguished, but there are many Cuban options, from tamales and guava-filled empanadas to flan for dessert. Order any of the $8 daily plates, especially Wednesday's ropa vieja, and you get so much food you'll want to run out and find someone to share it.
The store is tiny, and there's not much room to maneuver. But at least there's plenty to look over as you wait for your order — from the deli case crammed with pork legs to the walls sporting maps of pre-revolution Cuba beside posters of Drew Brees.