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Soul Survivors 

New Soul Food Restaurants Crop Up as the Classics Struggle Back

The hand-painted sign on Elysian Fields announces "Hot Food" and points down St. Denis Street. It doesn't look promising after a few residential blocks of flood-damaged houses and not a person in sight. Just when the prospects seem hopeless, another sign appears propped up on a pile of debris, bearing the same brush strokes and pointing down Clematis Street. Turn at the boarded-up convenience store with the fishing skiff still abandoned in its parking lot and there, just ahead, is T&H Grocery.

Like all of its neighbors, this building was flooded neck deep, but behind the new Plexiglass barriers the grocery puts out a spread of fried catfish, hammy greens, red beans, chicken wings and cheese-topped spaghetti casserole served by the brick.

It's traditional New Orleans soul food, gotten in these strange contemporary times in an untraditional manner. For those who know and love it, soul food can be an edible symbol of home. With both homes and neighborhoods still lying shattered, a trip down a deserted and flood-rutted street is hardly a deterrent to get a taste of it again.

Corner groceries with hot food like T&H were unremarkably common before the storm, but it's menu is noteworthy now with purveyors of this type of food still rare and some of the most famous and best-loved soul food kitchens closed.

Dookie Chase Restaurant and Willie Mae's Scotch House remain out of action. Both landmark restaurants, located a few blocks from each other in the Seventh Ward, are rebuilding and each has been the beneficiary of generous fund-raising and volunteer labor. But the flood damage to each was so complete that reopenings are months away.

Dunbar's Creole Kitchen remains closed, as does Williams Family Restaurant on Toledano Street, its gutted interior visible through barred windows missing their glass. The Brown Derby, the Louisiana Avenue grocery with cafeteria-style soul food meals, was destroyed by fire in May after reopening for several months after the flood. Pampy's Creole Kitchen in Gentilly is still closed.

Some new restaurants have stepped up to help fill the breach, including a few in neighborhoods that were heavily flooded. Minnie's Catfish Corner opened in May at the corner of Tulane Avenue and South Cortez Street. Po-boys, catfish platters, bowls of yaka mein and $7 daily lunch plates are attracting some of the biggest crowds this corner of Mid-City has seen since the storm.

In Gentilly, first-time restaurateur Nicole Masters has transformed a former pool hall at Paris Avenue and Treasure Street into Nicole's Creole Cuisine serving breakfast, lunch and early dinner. Her specialties include ham and shrimp-stuffed bell peppers, stewed chicken, barbecue pork chop sandwiches, jambalaya and house-made brownies and pies.

On Magazine Street, in a former sno-ball stand near Harry's Ace Hardware, the new soul food joint called Uptown's Finest serves the one-plate-per-day classics on weekdays, from red beans on Monday to fried catfish on Fridays.

Soul food is served from the front door of a double shotgun house on St. Philip Street in the Treme, though it's more akin to a neighborhood bake sale than a legitimate restaurant. Patrons inspect the menu stapled to the wall outside, call their order in through the screen door and a few minutes later exchange cash for carton-packed meals on the stoop.

Some old soul food favorites are back in business as well. The extensive menu of all things fried, smothered and stewed is once again available at Two Sisters Restaurant, just off Canal Street at the corner of North Roman and Bienville streets. Red beans, butter beans, white beans and blackeyed peas are joined by such specialties of the soul food canon as turkey necks, pigtails, oxtails, pig knuckles and chitterlings, or pig intestines. Stewed hen, fried chicken, veal stew and smothered pork chops fill out the bargain combo-plate options. The Praline Connection reopened its Faubourg Marigny location only; it's larger Warehouse District venue is now converted into the relocated The Howlin' Wolf music hall. The crowder peas alone are worth a visit, and of course the attached candy shop is cooking up the restaurant's namesake array of pralines.

On Esplanade Avenue, veteran restaurateur Wayne Baquet has been writing the next chapter in his family's Creole soul food legacy since reopening Li'l Dizzy's CafŽ in January. Despite a foot of flood water inside the restaurant and visits by looters, Baquet quickly got to work repairing the building and even created living space on the second floor for some of his key staff.

Business is now better than ever, which Baquet credits in part to serving breakfast -- still a relative scarcity for restaurants in the area. The buffet that had been Li'l Dizzy's calling card before the storm is gone, a casualty of the higher costs of doing business post-Katrina, Baquet says. The a la carte menu that replaced it, however, is filled with the old favorites -- fried chicken, stuffed peppers and gumbo with house-made sausage -- as well as some dishes unique to the Baquet family that haven't been seen in a while. The trout Baquet is back -- a fried filet covered with crabmeat and butter sauce -- as are crabcakes Jerry with crawfish tails, butter, onion and garlic.

Li'l Dizzy's dining room is still the scene for daily reunions among friends and neighbors who have been disconnected since the storm. Baquet says many of his regulars who aren't yet living back in the city nonetheless make a point to visit whenever they come to town.

"That's because we've got something here that's almost gone, the Creole soul food of New Orleans," Baquet says. "You go to Baton Rouge, you can't find po-boy bread. When I was in Atlanta, let me tell you, there's no red beans, there's no pickled meat, no good shrimp. If you're trying to make gumbo, you're in trouble."

click to enlarge First-time restaurateur Marie Nicole Masters has - transformed a former pool hall into Nicole's Creole Cuisine - in Gentilly. - TRACIE MORRIS-SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris-Schaefer
  • First-time restaurateur Marie Nicole Masters has transformed a former pool hall into Nicole's Creole Cuisine in Gentilly.


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