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Review: Li'l Dizzy's Cafe 

Ian McNulty finds lunch in the Treme as good as ever

click to enlarge >Proprietor Wayne Baquet serves gumbo, trout Baquet and other dishes made with his restaurateuring family's recipes.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

>Proprietor Wayne Baquet serves gumbo, trout Baquet and other dishes made with his restaurateuring family's recipes.

I've heard New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival food booths described as offering curious visitors a crash course in New Orleans cooking. This year I learned what an effective refresher they can be for locals as well. It was trout Baquet, served on a paper plate outdoors in a light drizzle, that reminded me I was long overdue for another visit to its natural habitat, Li'l Dizzy's Cafe in Treme.

  The fish is pan-fried with a peppery, garlicky seasoning blend sealed into its crust, and it's topped by a nearly-equal amount of crabmeat sautéed with onions, parsley and more garlic until it's more like a buttery hash than a sauce. With a lemon wedge squeeze, and maybe some sides of white beans and mac and cheese, it's a straightforward Creole dish that has a lot to say.

  That's the story all over Li'l Dizzy's. This is an easygoing, somewhat disheveled neighborhood cafe where stacks of soda cases share floor space with a salad bar. Many meals come straight from the buffet (served at lunch and Sunday brunch) and most of the dishes are drawn from a long family legacy of Creole soul cooking.

  It goes back to Eddie's, which proprietor Wayne Baquet's father opened in 1966. Despite an obscure address on a 7th Ward back street, it drew national attention before closing in 1994. Baquet has operated a number of restaurants since, all more or less based on the family cookbook, and he opened Li'l Dizzy's in 2004. A second Li'l Dizzy's in the CBD has since closed, but in Treme, service recently expanded to add early dinner (until 8 p.m. and BYOB).

  The place is busiest at lunch, when cops, women in business suits and guys in Birkenstocks all take turns along a buffet that has crab cakes one day, stuffed peppers the next and fried chicken at all times.

  A buffet may not seem like the place to find legendary food, but that's where Li'l Dizzy's keeps its superlative gumbo, which is crowded with seafood and meat and defined by a thin, dark, intense roux imbued with bits of everything. Hot sausage is made with a family recipe that goes way back. Dense, brick-red and assertively spicy, these beef and pork links are plated with red beans and stacked inside sturdy po-boy loaves where their juice melds with the mayo.

  If the notion of a Creole breakfast brings to mind a big brunch, weekday mornings at Li'l Dizzy's show other possibilities. Fried catfish is just as natural beside scrambled eggs as bacon and the standout is the seafood omelet po-boy, with crabmeat packed around the edges and yellow American cheese oozing from every inch.

  The a la carte menus are short, and sometimes I wish there were more choices. But the overall lineup at Li'l Dizzy's reflects a long distillation of New Orleans eating.

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