Sassafras and its predecessor restaurants have moved around a bit, but at its core the food here is very firmly rooted.
This is the Creole cooking you'll find at a solid neighborhood restaurant. Its green peppers are packed with beef and shrimp. Its fried chicken has skin the color of iced tea. And its gumbo is so full of sausage and seafood that your spoon can rest on its surface without sinking. It's the food we expect to find in some New Orleans homes, and food I'm especially happy to find in Gentilly as more restaurants return to the area.
The Duckworth family started Sassafras in 2004 on Bullard Avenue in eastern New Orleans. Flooding after Hurricane Katrina did in that location, but later the restaurant reopened a mile away inside a motel on Read Boulevard. The story goes farther back, to Ora Mae's Creole Cafe, a cafeteria-style eatery the family ran inside the Lake Forest Plaza Mall.
Last summer, Sassafras came west, turning up in a strip mall between the University of New Orleans campus and its Lakefront Arena. This restaurant is snazzier than the neighborhood joints its best dishes conjure. Bright and orderly, one wall is lined with booths large enough to corral the whole family. There's no bar (a liquor license is still in the works), but in a small holding area up front there always are a few people waiting for take-out orders.
The menu is long, and it includes dishes like Thai steak salad and spinach-and-artichoke dip — probably to offer something for everyone. But I go there solely for the dishes with Creole flavor.
For instance, there is no messing with the smothered okra, served in a family-size portion with a molded cylinder of rice, the okra distinct and joined by lots of smoky sausage. The red beans, served with fried chicken or as an entree in their own right, are so full of pickled pork strands that you taste them in each bite, even if you can't always see it on the fork. Crab flavor similarly saturates the gumbo.
Fried seafood, for po-boys or platters, is another strong point, thanks to plump product and the kitchen's peppery, clean-tasting, sandy brown batter. Specials are always worth a look, and if you want to ensure leftovers, try Friday's catfish Orleans, a huge bowl filled to the brim with pasta and covered with shrimp etouffee. There's nothing else for the fried catfish to do but balance on top.
Lunch is hopping with campus professionals and people from the nearby FBI field office. The dining room is quieter in the evenings, but Sassafras seems most alive during Sunday brunch. That's when chicken and waffles or liver and grits go to every other table, and when just about everyone is wearing their Sunday best. The scene leaves no doubt that Sassafras is an after-church destination on Sunday, and like the recipes, that's a tradition stretching all the way back to the family's first restaurant at Lake Forest Plaza.