A roundabout path to Chicken Sue's was directed by two fixtures of post-flood Lakeview: a stray roofing nail and C. Ray Bergeron. The nail flattened my car tire and led me to Bergeron at his Fleur de Lis Car Care service station. Bergeron, known to some admirers as 'the hardest working C. Ray in New Orleans," never misses a chance to stump for the little commercial strip of West Harrison Avenue that looked doomed after the levee failures but now is bustling with the business of rebuilding. So he eagerly pointed me to Chicken Sue's to grab lunch while his garage crew worked their way to my tire. Like other neighborhoods ravaged by the federal levee failures, Lakeview can still be a place of dizzying dichotomies. Showplace homes with gleaming new paint and immaculate new gardens stand next to contemporary American ruins. New businesses have set up shop, and old favorites have reopened or even expanded while a block behind them wrecked buildings stand gutted and flood-streaked, their front doors slapping in the wind. Maybe that's why even small reminders of pre-Katrina life can pack such nostalgic power, and I think that's why people seem so excited to recognize the faces at Chicken Sue's.
Regular patrons of Meme's Market (the grocery store by Lake Vista flooded into the history books) may do a double take upon walking into this new shop. Behind the register is owner Sue 'Chicken Sue" Tiblier, who had been a manager at Meme's for many years. Working with her to fry chicken, ladle roast beef gravy onto French bread and tamp down Cuban sandwiches is a team of women who also worked together at Meme's deli counter. The setting here is much different from the grocery aisles of Meme's " it is a stark example of the 'just-Sheetrocked" aesthetic so prominent in Lakeview these days " and the menu is not exactly a replica either, but a familiar feeling is present nonetheless.
Born and raised in Lakeview, Tiblier got an early start in the chicken business, working at her relative's Chicken Delight restaurant on Argonne Street from age 14. She bought the place to run herself soon after she turned 21, but most people coming into Chicken Sue's these days know her from her career at Meme's, which lasted until Katrina hit.
The flood ruined Tiblier's home and the rental properties she owned around Lakeview, but she decided to get her life back together again by doing what she knows best, which is running a kitchen. She knew her neighborhood would need a casual place for quick lunches and catering. She also knew she needed help to make it work, so Tiblier tracked down some of her former Meme's co-workers in their Texas evacuation cities. She convinced Theresa Domengeaux, Winnie Jackson and Audell McMillon to move back, promised them jobs and ended up with a crew that needed no training and already had a rapport with each other and many customers.
Chicken is the thing here, and it is based on the same old family recipe Tiblier has been using since her first Chicken Delight job. The chicken is fried to order, and that can take a while, sometimes 15 or 20 minutes. But the result is terrific, piping hot, juicy and coated in a lightly-seasoned skin. Like everything else here, it is inexpensive.
One of the more unusual menu items, eggplant fries, is also one of the best. Cut to the size and shape of French fries, the eggplant comes out of the fryer very tender with a soft, semi-translucent coating. They are fantastic with a few shakes of salt and Crystal Hot Sauce.
There is always a daily special, running from red beans and rice with fried chicken to pork chops with jambalaya, and they are good bargains. Other things to try are the Cuban sandwich, a Meme's mainstay served here with plenty of butter slathered on the soft-crusted French bread, and the muffuletta, made ahead of time with thick layers of Chisesi Bros.-brand meats and an olive salad that is mostly chopped olives and oil. A whole muffuletta is $10 and can easily feed two.
A hot meal is the main draw to Chicken Sue's, of course, but some of the ancillary services the little restaurant offers can be read as signs of the times in the self-directed recovery of Lakeview. For instance, Tiblier decided to start selling postage stamps after she needed to mail a letter and found herself driving out to Metairie for the once-simple errand. Chicken Sue's also has a little side business in copying and faxing services. At lunch, contractors queue up with insurance documents and other such paperwork as they wait for their four-piece order of mixed chicken to come out of the kitchen. Tiblier even provides a few telephones at the tables as a lunchtime convenience for customers who do not yet have landlines at home.
'People say, "What if I call China?'" Tiblier says. 'I tell them, that's fine, I'll just charge you double for the chicken."