New Orleans Cafe
[from May 1999 issue]

On a recent sunny noon, the front window (top half) was flung wide open at New Orleans Cafe. Seated at a table with his elbows almost in the pansies, a patron sipped coffee--or maybe it was cafe au lait--and read his Wall Street Journal. Every few minutes, one friend or another stopped to chat with him, leaning into the window, for after all, the man was seated almost on the sidewalk.

In this tiny eatery, no bigger than a sigh, life seemed tranquil. And why not? It's an unexpected gem, one I've passed a million times without a backwards glance. What it lacks in size, however, it more than makes up for in casual ambiance and dynamite foods. Wake up mid-morning--or mid-afternoon--and still want eggs and biscuits? New Orleans Cafe will oblige, with breakfast/brunch foods served all day. You'll find the rather obligatory Eggs Benedict (poached eggs with ham and Hollandaise sauce) and the less familiar Eggs Sardou (poached eggs on artichokes and with spinach and Hollandaise sauce) to an egg dish that sounds like the cook's creation: Eggs New Orleans, poached eggs on fried oysters with crabmeat and Hollandaise sauce.

Omelets, which come with biscuits and home fries, also appear in many hearty Southern guises, from Creole to redbean and andouille sausage fillings. Northerners can get them plain, however, with less glamorous fillings such as ham, cheese, mushroom and vegetable. As for other eye-openers, find pancakes or French toast or something called a Bayou Croissant, a buttery croissant filled with scrambled eggs, ham, and melted provolone.

But for food with real gusto, you'll want to skip over these lighter dishes and start with fried oysters or fried okra, then move onto a bowl of gumbo, almost any way you like: vegetable, chicken, andouille, shrimp, seafood, and crawfish (all at different prices). The andouille gumbo, besides steaming from the soup kettle, has a slightly peppery after-bite, noticeable yet still pleasant. You may even be tempted to sprinkle in a few drops of pepper sauce from one of the bottles at the table for added fire.

Then, depending on your appetite, you can eat big: a chicken, andouille sausage, shrimp or seafood jambalaya; crawfish, shrimp, or andouille sausage etouffee; or a pasta dish called Cajun Linguini, tossed with a choice of several meaty toppings. Besides that, the kitchen offers a handful of entrees that are primarily Southern in origin, though their dish called Mother Nature sounds more West Coast than Down South.

Ah--but that still leaves the Po' Boy Sandwiches, likely invented by some Southerner stretching a budget with some soul-satisfying creations. The classic oyster Po' Boy of cornmealed or breaded fried oysters turns into something here called the Peace Maker, something so pleasing it settles disputes? Do love those oysters, but their River Catch, crusty chunks of fried catfish stuffed into a monster roll and dressed with remoulade, can lift anyone from the doldrums. That, plus cafe au lait and a large handkerchief to mop one's brow. Heaven.

Still hungry? Dessert choices are limited to beignets (the New Orleans' classic deep-fried pastry), bread pudding, and pecan pie. But if you've overindulged in gumbo plus anything else, chances are that any dessert will cause major calorie overload. Explosion!

Unburdened by glamour and media hype, it looks as if New Orleans Cafe just does its thing: offer good food at bargain-basement prices. And if you can't find a table, shop in the area and come back later.

New Orleans Cafe, 2412-18th St., NW; 234-0420. Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11am-9:30pm; Sat. & Sun., 10am-10pm. Entrees, $7.95-$11.95. All major credit cards.

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