In the early weeks of Carnival, when a slice of neon-bright cake was still a harbinger of a holiday and not just a quick blast of sugar between beers, I stumbled across Steve's Diner, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday in the Central Business District. When I saw the stack of king cakes next to the register, I couldn't resist asking the cashier to open a box and cut me a piece.
I added the cake to my tray, already filled with a club sandwich, a bowl of corn crab chowder and a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade, and took a table in the middle of the cave-like dining room. The ceiling rises toward the back where neon glow replaces natural light, but bright red-and-white-striped walls cheer up the space.
Watching the staff move through the restaurant, bantering with each other and the regulars they knew by name, I thought that they must be putting as much care into the food as they lavish on the customers. When I bit into the king cake, a yeasty cinnamon roll topped with crunchy layer of Mardi Gras-colored sprinkles, I knew I had found a dish that must make the staff proud. (You'll have to wait until next year to find out for yourself.) The club sandwich and corn crab soup were fine, although I would have preferred more dressing on the sandwich and less oil in the soup. Still, over the next few weeks, I discovered that Steve's is a good little diner where, if you order wisely, you can get a great meal.
When Steve Gundlach bought the old New City Diner, which catered to CBD office workers with daily specials served cafeteria style, he renamed it, added a grill for burger and kosher hot dogs, and upgraded the salads and specials. One of my best lunches at Steve's was a daily special of moist, butter-soaked catfish, speckled brown from the saute pan and topped with aioli and crowned with crabmeat. Another special, a pork chop covered in honey glaze, failed to match the catfish. The glaze, sweet but short of cloying, was unfortunately too thick, and the chop had a chewy texture. Other specials include meatloaf with brown gravy, chicken fried steak with pepper gravy, and grilled tuna with a tomato basil sauce.
When picking sides, choose what looks best from the daily selection and you'll likely be satisfied. You might even be delighted. Bits of brown sugar crust clung to the excellent mashed sweet potatoes with candied pecans. A medley of sauteed squash and zucchini, mixed with tomatoes and a hint of Cajun seasoning, was one of the best versions of this popular side dish I've ever eaten.
Displayed like cakes in a refrigerated case, Steve's salads surpass the average diner's offerings. One salad was ringed like a circus tent with strips of breaded chicken and avocados and garnished with a fistful of bacon bits, while the oriental chicken salad featured honey-roasted peanuts and sesame ginger dressing.
Steve's bakes fine desserts, like brownies and lemon bars (and seasonal king cake), but at breakfast the diner really proves its baking mettle with its homemade biscuits. There are many ways a biscuit can go wrong: too dry, too thin, too pasty or too brittle. Steve's biscuit, with a hint of sweetness and a dense texture that easily falls apart when you take a bite -- but doesn't crumble on the plate -- avoids all these dangers. It's even better brushed with melted butter and filled with meat, cheese or eggs.
The biscuits sell out quickly, and sometimes you might wait a few minutes for the arrival of a fresh batch. At lunchtime, as well, Steve's often briefly runs out of specials, sides and corn bread. The brisk traffic, though, means that nothing waits on the steam table long before being served onto someone's plate. One morning, I joined a friend for breakfast at Steve's. My friend, a little shy about asking for extra melted butter for the grits on his Half Rooster special (grits, scrambled eggs and a biscuit), slyly added an extra pat at the table. If he came a few more times, he'd probably know the women behind the counter by name and not be embarrassed to ask for a second scoop of butter. I bet pretty soon they would add two ladles of butter to his grits before he even asked. They might tease him about it, but they wouldn't disapprove.