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No Clowning Around 

Bozo's is very serious when it comes to fried, broiled or boiled seafood.

At the end of a lengthy conversation with Bernadine Vodanovich, she requested that I "write something different" about the restaurant she, her husband Chris (Bozo) and his sister Mary Ann run behind Border's Books in Metairie. That's easy for her to say. Chef Bozo (a Yugoslavian nickname inherited from his father) hasn't changed the restaurant's recipes since his parents opened it on St. Ann Street in Mid-City on April 1, 1928 (they moved into the larger space with more parking in 1985). His other sister, Vitza, who makes the legendary vats of pleasantly spicy, rouxless chicken andouille gumbo, also meticulously measures the ingredients for every batch.

While relentless consistency and the changeless welcoming service keep seafood houses like Bozo's going for more than 70 years, I knew what Bernadine meant because she related some of the unsung stories: the jockeys and trainers who use Bozo's as their cafeteria during racing season; former Saints defensive tackle Dave Rowe, who recently sent a letter to the restaurant thanking the Vodanoviches for memories that surpass playing in the Super Bowl; and the handful of customers who eat Bozo's food every day that he's there to cook it.

I hadn't noticed any jockeys or celebrity athletes during my previous visits, so I took her suggestion to stand at the celebrated oyster bar one Saturday afternoon. But even with two shuckers on duty, there was no time for small talk, and the guy beside me was too enthralled with his catsup-horseradish concoction to look up. He did seem to know his way around, though, so I followed his lead when he took a table in the bright but bare-bones dining room for his next dozen fried.

A few tourists sat behind the plates garnished with iridescent yellow potato salad, baked potatoes and sour pickle rounds, but mostly the relations between guest and Vodanovich seemed tight and kitchen-bound. That's where they all hang out, with Bozo on the hot side and the two women trading shifts at the cash register facing the dining room. Friends and fans file in for hugs and thanks. Bozo usually pauses graciously next to pans of headless, hammy-tasting shrimp in a simple but superb New Orleans barbecue sauce of bay leaf, peppercorns, soft garlic and lots of rosemary. Bowls of the plain, unseasoned cornmeal lay in wait for their catch, and servers pass with portions of the overly sweet pineapple and raisin bread pudding. I waved thanks once through the window, but never got an invite.

Despite the kitchen's consistency, my conversational defeat at the oyster bar, and general outsider status, the air at Bozo's was thick with stories. Next time I'll invite myself into a conversation between the numerous regulars from the Vodanovich's own generation, many who probably have been coming to Bozo's as long as the chef and Mary Ann have.

Which is not to call them old, although they are at an age when most of their peers wouldn't dream of spending their waking hours standing before hot oil, sweeping cracker crumbs or balancing two meals' worth of transactions. Fortunately for us, a Vodanovich doesn't rest so easily, aside from those six months Bozo was out following triple bypass surgery last year (which followed a 1985 heart attack).

If you're tempted to blame the trim chef's heart troubles on his own fried foods, think again. Bozo is one of those New Orleans-bred boys for whom fine frying is a dominant gene. He's smarter than the oil. Cornmeal-dredged catfish -- meaty and wild, or as Bernadine calls it, "natural" -- is hot enough to warp a fork and so devoid of greasy residue that I put my nose to the kitchen's windows for proof that it ever touched those oil-slicked pans. My server sidled up to inform me that, for reasons of quality control, the various oils don't mingle.

French fries and shrimp get their own deep fryers, catfish crisp in skillets and the large stovetop pots are for oysters. He called Bozo's a great place for fried-food "beginners," probably noticing that I hadn't finished my oysters. Those were the only bites that contained any unfavorable hints at the oil. The meat was moist and succulent, and the outer texture was a perfected bumpy brown with stray flecks of cornmeal, but a distinct taste of fried got to me: that rich, almost burnt flavor that usually means it's time to change the oil. Don't tell Bozo about that, though. According to his wife, he frets over imperfect food, often throwing it out, and I wouldn't want him to lose his concentration at the fryer.

Bozo also broils and boils enough seafood to make a dent in the Gulf's population. Crawfish never made it into his kitchen during last year's lame season. Neither crawfish nor boiled shrimp was available during my visits either. Luckily, the latter crustacean shone on Bozo's stuffed shrimp platter. Butterflied and broiled, the pinkish bodies arched over hearty, celery-rich mounds of crabby dressing. That recipe's a keeper.

But I'm sure they've heard that before. Sorry, Mrs. Vodanovich. Chef Bozo has continued a family tradition that dates back to 1928.


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