More than 160 years old, the historic building sits on a tip of neutral ground at the corner of St. Claude and St. Roch avenues -- just downwind from landmarks like King Roger's Seafood, Oyster Pete's, Gene's Po-Boys and the Hi-Ho Lounge. Once inside, I shared the company of whole, whiskery catfish pressed up against the seafood case, fathers dragging kids in to choose the evening's catch, and women debating the differences between fish fry brands. When a guy at the next wobbly table offered a warm crawfish from his brown paper bag, we tore, pinched and bit in unison, agreeing that a certain creaminess made the boil spices taste like yellow curry. A nub of sweet corn boiled with the crawfish tasted like Bloody Mary -- all celery seed and chiles.
On Wednesday, a man outside St. Roch cursed at the sign forbidding him to bring his bicycle inside. The counter woman gave me a not-so-happy sigh of recognition, and she twisted up her nose when I asked about the crawfish etouffee. "We have a hot line there," she said, pointing at a steam table I had chosen to ignore. With her approval I ended up with a pile of sea-salty fried oysters. They didn't even pretend to be crisp and were more delicious for their honesty. With this city's stiff competition, my friend's roast beef po-boy wasn't in the running for best of show; still, the shear slices of meat and gooey brown gravy were good enough for lunch and piled on in moderation so that he only supplicated the counter woman once for more napkins.
St. Roch's raggedy exterior immediately sets it apart from other downtrodden buildings. Maybe it's that structures gain an air of confidence when they've been around the block for so long; perhaps smudges of beautification remain from improvements the Work Progress Administration (WPA) made in 1937 when the city still owned it, converting it from an open-air market to a covered shop. These days, pigeons gather on the rusted tin roof next to slowly twirling exhaust fans; the vandalized brick side walls stretch back past beheaded parking meters toward homes characterized by ornate wrought iron work; faded signs on the wooden facade advertise "seafood boiled," "turkey necks" and "chicken legs." The graying tableau is especially romantic alongside a modern, plasticky Rally's.
Photos dating back to the WPA's intervention show columns stretching up to the market's vaulted ceilings and slick-haired workers standing next to reams of butcher paper. On Thursday at St. Roch, I noticed the stubby bottom halves of those columns, which are now cut off by a low ceiling. A free-standing linen towel dispenser behind the seafood counter -- the kind that's still found mounted to restroom walls -- was the only other noticeable bit of old-fashion charm among the Budweiser mirrors and gaming machines in the cement-floor space. That afternoon I got a deadpan "She's back" from the kitchen crew of the Vietnamese-owned Market and took a cue from a man who seemed to be enjoying a quart of gumbo with his tall-boy. An astringent swell suggested massive quantities of file in the gumbo, but it teemed with okra, shrimp, chicken, ham, sausage and rice and surpassed my expectations for the steam table. Sweet potato pie seemed to be made with nutmeg that had worn out its welcome a while ago, but there was a sweet banana pudding with ripe banana chunks and vanilla wafers.
On Friday I got to St. Roch at around 10 a.m., a quiet time when you might come up against a funeral processing to the St. Roch Cemetery down the street. Most customers arrive by foot in the morning and leave with bundles of raw seafood; the politest old men take numbers from the machine before ordering boiled shrimp and shucked oysters, even when there's no one else in line. I ordered the ya cha mein, a sort of ramen noodle soup with roast beef and shrimp, which compensated in comfort value for the frightening mystery meat in a doughy eggroll. My Vietnamese friend, apparently a morning person, actually smiled when she saw me, illustrating that old customers, like old buildings, can grow on anyone.