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Review: Baja Nola 

Metairie restaurant combines Mexican and Cajun influences

click to enlarge Proprietors Ricky and Jazmin Bermudez serve Mexican-style broiled oysters at Baja Nola.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Proprietors Ricky and Jazmin Bermudez serve Mexican-style broiled oysters at Baja Nola.

There are tacos, crunchy flautas, sizzling fajitas, guacamole and velvety queso. One glance at the menu will confirm that yes, this is a Mexican restaurant.

  But the story of Baja Nola, which opened in Metairie in July, is best told through its oysters.

  Here, Gulf Coast oysters arrive with a Latin twist, hot from the grill, topped with a rich mix of melted Mexican cheeses: Oaxaca, Chihuahua and asadero. Instead of butter or garlic, pico de gallo tops the bivalves. Instead of French bread, the oysters are served with warm corn tortillas, perfect for swaddling the cheesy mix into mini quesadillas.

  Like many other Latin-owned restaurants in the city, the owners' diverse cultural backgrounds influence the dishes that exit the kitchen. Ricky Bermudez is from Guatemala, but he grew up in Texas. His wife Jazmin is from Honduras. The food, while unquestionably Mexican, carries a hint of their chosen home, New Orleans.

  That spirit is felt in creative riffs on dishes such as fried oyster empanada poppers, or "Mexicajun" corn, a cob boiled in Cajun spices and topped with butter, mayonnaise, Cotija cheese and salty-sweet Tajin seasoning.

  The spirit extends beyond the food menu. A mural of the Superdome greets customers as they walk in the door, and bottles of Crystal hot sauce sit on the tables. On one visit, a New Orleans Saints game was on TV while reggaeton beats provided background music.

  Though the owners are new to the business, many of the dishes here are emblematic of a family with a longer history with food. Ricky Bermudez's mother once ran the restaurant Taqueria Jalisco on the West Bank, and she now owns the Latin grocery La Placita in Kenner.

  That lineage and culinary history find their way onto plates in several instances, such as the chicharron, or cracklings, cooked in a fiery red sauce — made with a recipe passed down from Bermudez's grandmother. The fatty knobs of pork rind are stewed for hours in a sauce heavy with ancho chilies, guajillo peppers and chile de arbol so the rinds turn soft and gelatinous and practically melt in your mouth.

  Bright crimson chorizo — made using Bermudez's mother's recipe — is cooked with a mix of poblano, jalapeno and serrano peppers with an end result that packs a deliciously warm, tingling heat.

  Tacos arrive on warm flour or corn tortillas dotted with chopped onions and cilantro and garnished with limes. These are tacos of a humble breed — where the straightforward fillings do not want for frill or fuss and are simply pleasing. Some fare better than others, however. Carne asada was tough on one visit, but barbacoa, a slow-roasted beef medley, arrived juicy and flavorful, an earthy and warm mix.

  Gulf seafood is featured heavily on the menu, and the ceviche of mahi mahi, shrimp and crabmeat is one of the best and freshest-tasting versions of the dish I've had recently. The fish is marinated for 24 hours and served in the juicy elixir of lime, cucumbers and pico de gallo, topped with thick avocado wedges and served with blistering hot, crunchy tostadas.

  Baja Nola is a little off the beaten path, tucked off the I-10 Service Road in a nondescript residential area, but the quirky twists on Mexican comfort fare are well worth the excursion.

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