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Special Effect 

RADOSTA'S, the former corner grocery store in Old Metairie, has po-boys for every palate.

I met a pregnant woman at a party last month who, while propping herself within reach of the apple cake, divulged her most intense third trimester craving: Don's Special po-boy at Radosta's. She told about how Don's chopped olive salad cloaks the sandwich's homemade Italian sausage patties in garlicky goodness, about the toasted Alois J. Binder bread and the provolone. Come hell or heartburn, she needed this combination frequently. Our conversation soon petered out; we had summited a critical issue, and the urgency for a Don's Special hung in the air between us like a missed deadline. She grabbed another wedge of apple cake; I made tracks to Radosta's the following afternoon.

In truth, not much about Radosta's is urgent, except, sometimes, for finding it. Driving westbound on Metairie Road, you veer right the instant you feel your rear tires trundle over the railroad tracks, and you make a quick left just before Nor-Joe Imports -- assuming you're able to circumvent Nor-Joe's own exceptional olive salad. Then you keep alert. Like Domilise's in Uptown and Rendon Supermarket in Broadmoor, Radosta's is a po-boy great camouflaged by the quiet of its residential neighborhood. The slate-blue corner building at once blends into and stands out from the surrounding homes and suburban front yards. If the caravan of postal vehicles parked down Aris Street doesn't give it away, the tulip-red sign will.

The tone within Radosta's is, largely, remembrance. Only one aisle still stands from its days as a full-fledged corner grocery store, the others cleared out to accommodate tables and the chrome diner stools surrounding an island counter. But the clean, updated restaurant clearly sprang from the former grocery's rib: An old butcher's case remains as a reminder, along with an ice cream freezer, shelves of booze and a barricade of potato chips. And Radosta's is still a community hub. Customers move through the room with a comfortable fluidity, observing few restaurant formalities. You order at the meat counter, wait for the waiflike waitress to shout your name, and pay the cashier on your way out. You pull bottles of Barq's, nectar soda and Corona from beverage coolers and pop their tops with openers mounted on either side of a central column. You're on your honor for whatever you drink.

Owner Don Radosta has run this shop with his brothers, Wayne and Mark, for nearly 29 years, a remarkable span that doesn't seem to have eroded the brothers' ambition. "We were young when we started," says Wayne. Perhaps youth is to commend for their decidedly unstodgy po-boy menu. Several sandwiches match Don's Special in originality; most of these, like Don's, also taste swell.

Joan's Special contains large shrimp quick-sauteed with butter and herbs -- imagine New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp minus the nap-required heaviness. A shrimp Parmesan po-boy is exactly as it sounds. The fried shrimp's once-crisp, brown breading sloughs off into a dark, muscular tomato sauce, rendering the sauce darker yet and more muscular; with all their snappy sweetness intact, the shrimp buttress the sandwich.

One could argue that Mom's Special pushes the envelope: Asparagus, a main ingredient, is so soft you don't need teeth to chew it. Others will find fault with the thick-cut cheese, which remains unmelted on hot sandwiches, and with the pickles that never appear unless requested. But the consistency of these oddities indicates that they're stylistic decisions, not mistakes, and that somehow makes them easier to swallow.

The "special" po-boys are Radosta's bling, though rarely does a business ride 29 years on bling alone. Probably the most orthodox meal here involves crisp, heavily breaded onion rings, which are wide enough to wear as chokers, and roast beef po-boys that are too soggy to eat right-side-up. The beef, which Wayne Radosta butchers, roasts and slices six days a week, is fall-apart thin and moist; nothing, neither garlic nor heavy gravy, obscures its big, beefy flavor. Hand-cut steak fries are just like at home: shiny with oil, devoid of any crunch and totally delicious. A plain catfish po-boy, its steaming flesh snow white and its batter dry and crackly, finally concluded that Radosta's kitchen is determined to do right, bling or no bling.

For a po-boy shop, there's an inordinate clanging of spoon against ceramic. Blame it on the fantastic white bean and shrimp soup, with its earthy mushroom undertones and shredded carrot; its origins may well lie in Italy with the brothers' ancestors. A mild shrimp, okra and tomato gumbo is equally thoughtful if somewhat less distinctive.

For a po-boy shop, there's also an inordinate number of stuffed animals and animal heads hanging on the walls. It's difficult to pass a meal here without someone asking, "Is that a water buffalo wearing a sombrero?" Wayne Radosta confirmed that the African cape buffalo is on loan from a friend whose wife couldn't work it into her interior design plan. Over the years the shop has become a stuffed wildlife sanctuary. "We had a Canadian goose once," Wayne says. "But the owner got divorced and took it back." Pregnant women, hamstrung men, me -- Radosta's harbors little indulgences for darn near everyone.

click to enlarge Lunchtime is a busy time at RADOSTA'S as diners queue - up for the restaurant's popular po-boys.
  • Lunchtime is a busy time at RADOSTA'S as diners queue up for the restaurant's popular po-boys.
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