The next time visitors drop in and need a quick, no-fuss crash course in New Orleans flavor, I'm taking them straight to Gentilly to visit my new crush. We'll get shrimp-and-mirliton soup, maybe seafood gumbo and certainly we'll split a heaping combo of shrimp remoulade and crabmeat ravigote, doing business here under the deceptively mundane name of stuffed tomato salad. I'll recommend they try the grilled redfish or the trout, and I'll order the fried soft-shell crab with shrimp sauce. And we'll probably wash this lunch down with mugs of Budweiser, the only hard beverage served here.
Such are the pickings these days at Sammy's Food Service & Deli, whose institutional-sounding name hardly hints at its trove of done-right, down-home comfort dishes and its rich roster of Creole specials.
Rebuilt after the levee failures, Sammy's now has a spiffy, food-court look that belies its roots. These go back to owner Sammy Schloegel's uncle, John Shambra, who ran a butcher shop here. Schloegel and wife Gina took over the business after Shambra's death and reopened it as Sammy's in 1991. Schloegel kept up the butcher business for a while but gradually switched to serving breakfast and lunch.
Roots run deep, though, and Schloegel still makes his menu's good Italian sausage links and great hot sausage patties. He cuts steaks and chops on the premises in a kitchen chamber devoted to the task, where he also grinds beef for magnificent burgers.
For a modest $5, Sammy's standard burger is a towering, 12-oz. patty, hand-formed, loosely packed and grilled to a crisp edge. Unlike so many other celebrated burgers served on mere picnic buns, this one gets a seeded Leidenheimer roll that is up to the task of containing it. If Sammy's did nothing more than this burger, it still would be worth a trip across town.
But there is so much else, and much of it was added in the last year, since former Star Steak & Lobster House owner Billy Spain sold that French Quarter restaurant and joined the Schloegels at Sammy's. He ramped up the cooking from sandwiches, salads and plate lunches to include dishes such as the well-seasoned redfish, vividly fresh soft-shell crab and a whole, fried flounder crammed with seafood stuffing.
Sammy's remains a place to get a bargain feed as well. Big bowls of red beans and white beans are deeply flavored, and the smothered beef short ribs are almost dauntingly hearty. Then there's the sandwich called the Ray Ray, a head-turning pile of fried chicken cutlets, ham and melted Swiss on 16 inches of French bread.
Everything I've tried at Sammy's has been at least solid, and more often very impressive, especially in the $7-to-$14 lunch range. The main difficulty is getting at it. First there's the queue to order at the service counter, then there's the wait as frenzied women behind the registers holler ticket numbers across the room. But Sammy's makes the case that when a New Orleans restaurant's biggest problem is meeting the clamor of locals, the results are likely worth the wait.