Belt-busting helpings of simmered, smothered and stewed soul food are indeed the best argument for entering the white, textured cinderblock building near the I-610 overpass in Gentilly. I first tasted Harbor's mojo a couple years back, in an unforgettable bowl of kitchen-sink gumbo, during an era when the restaurant inhabited a space in the Faubourg Marigny now known as Cafe Unique. According to Harbor's proprietor, Juanita Bowie, leases and landlords provoked the move; she reopened in the current location last August, taking with her Harbor's "best three" cooks, including her brother, the legendary Dennis "Big D" Price.
On account of his Bigness, and resulting health troubles, Big D works only parttime and in a seated position. This has long been the angle at which he assembles his banana pudding, a dessert so desired at the former location that it always vanished before I could steal a taste. It seems to be in steady supply these days, the pressing concern now being whether to eat it chilled or heated. A solid block of pudding-logged vanilla wafers and ripe banana mush, made more in the style of bread pudding than pudding pudding, it's terrific either way -- but somehow sweeter when warmed. Big D likes his cold.
Jamaican pudding, a more traditional New Orleans-style bread pudding with raisins and a light, buttery Jamaican rum sauce, is close competition. If you'd never met a bread pudding, you might assume that this one's uniform density resulted from pound cake batter rather than old bread. The employee who sold me this dessert for take-out divulged that while she uses Jamaican rum for the sauce, she favors White Russians for herself. Who would argue?
Women in the kitchen, women at the cash register, women waiting tables, women gathered around tables -- while men do work and eat here, the women at Harbor's set the tone. A portrait of Bowie and Big D's mother, a young Irma Harbor, hangs beside the entrance in constant surveillance of the scene. She originated Harbor's soul food matriarchy in 1949, in the Warehouse District building where Ernst Cafe now operates. Bowie inherited the business when her mother passed away in 1992.
Done up in American flags, religious iconography and silk flowers, the current restaurant is correspondingly feminine, a far cry from the spirited but dank Marigny barroom (now somewhat brightened). Plastic blow-up eggs, pink crepe paper streamers and an artificial Christmas tree decorated for Easter matched the dining room's pastel plaid tablecloths and robin's egg-blue chairs earlier this month.
Waitresses tend to be grandmotherly, irrelevant of their age. Once when friends and I asked for cornbread, the waitress warned: "You better eat that bread. You asked for it." Fear may have caused us to grab for the warm, airy, cake-like squares, but we needed no bullying to finish them. The spoken-word lunch menu changes daily -- smothered corn and meatballs on Monday, meatloaf and yams on Thursday, barbecue ribs and file gumbo on Friday. First-timers will escape scowls by listening well the first time.
Wednesday's enormous stewed turkey wings come from birds that clearly were never meant to fly. Order them with the lima bean, corn and hot sausage succotash, a sort of summery stew united by tomato. Add a cup of sno-ball-sweet iced peach tea, and it's a wrap.
Everything's good and smothered on Tuesdays when a salty, brown onion gravy washes over thin, skillet-fried pork chops and fried chicken -- sometimes drumsticks, other times wings. Big D says that his family came from "the country," in this case Sicily Island, which may explain the farmhouse hardiness of Harbor's cooking. For smothered okra, the vegetable is cooked down so completely that only a soft pulp of green and seeds remains; shell-on shrimp stewed with it season the okra with shellfish's distinctive, almost earthy savor.
It sounds ridiculous to call the supplementary dishes here "sides," since most of them (like the smothered okra and the succotash) could hold their own as main courses in portion size and complexity. Smaller stomachs would be wise to opt for cheddar cheese melted over grassy-green broccoli stems, or yellow mustard-yellow potato salad so rife with chopped pickle it could qualify as a relish itself. I wouldn't pass up the creamy butter beans larded with fatty pork seasoning, which also showed up on a Tuesday. When I leaned over to steam in their savory vapors, a waitress apparently unaccustomed to such gestures thought I was scrutinizing them. "That's black pepper, you know, those beans aren't dirty!" she admonished, just like my grandmother might. I do know. I tasted it in every last one.