What exactly do we mean when we say a restaurant is a “hidden gem?” Is it small? Precious? Priceless? Is it actually hidden? Is it tucked away behind a curtain or a secret door, or is it a spot you drive by almost daily before someone finally brings it to your attention?
An analysis published in June 2018 by The Advocate reported over 1200 restaurants in Orleans Parish alone, so it’s highly likely that for the average person, the amount of spots they’ve visited is only a small fraction of all available eateries. Does that make every place that one hasn’t patronized yet hidden? How many of those hundreds (dare I say thousands) of unknown destinations are gems and what makes them that way?
Like most things in life, what makes a restaurant a hidden gem is subjective. But since I am writing this article, we’ll just go with my parameters, shall we? First, in order to make it on my list, a hidden gem must be a place that’s rarely featured in print or digital publications (especially national publications), discussed ad nauseum on forums or excessively photographed for social media. Secondly, and this is a big one, it should be affordable or accessible to everyone. Finally, the food should be well made, approachable and craveable: something that pops into your head when you’re starving and forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer.
Whenever I am asked about any hidden restaurant gems in New Orleans, invariably the first place that comes to mind is GB’s Patio Bar & Grill. Tucked behind Madigan’s Bar in the Riverbend, you’d walk right by this covered, brick patio if there weren’t a sign out front. But folks who live in the neighborhood know (and adventurous tourists) is that GB’s is a great spot to bring the family and enjoy juicy, backyard-style burgers, hot dogs and steaks. As an added bonus, a server who’s been there as long as I can remember regularly offers homemade cakes and pies for dessert.
Speaking of sweets, while writers (including myself) are seemingly stuck on waxing poetic about baked goods at places like Gracious Bakery, La Boulangerie, Levee and Bywater Bakery … there’s a spot way down on Jefferson Highway in Harahan called La Petite Sophie Patisserie. Co-owners and chefs Lya and Jeff Becnel will keep you mouth in drool-mode with almond chocolate croissants and sugared, fruit filled “pop tarts,” the star of their show are their buttery, caramelized kouign amann, They are so fabulous that during Mardi Gras, you can score one on a larger scale, their kouign amann king cake. Whether you catch them at farmers markets or you happen to be by the shop, passing them up is a pastry-lovers faux pas.
Another Harahan restaurant that doesn’t get the love it deserves is Heads & Tails Seafood and Oyster Bar on Dickory Avenue. Marrero-born chef Brandon Green grew up cooking Cajun and Creole cuisine with his grandmother and now he’s sharing it with us. It’s like discovering a French Quarter eatery in the suburbs with dishes like boudin-stuffed mushrooms, fried green tomatoes with sauteed shrimp and remoulade, jumbo lump crab cakes and my favorite, Redfish Pontchartrain – blackened Louisiana redfish topped with blue crab and lemon beurre blanc.
For a while I thought that the only place to get Filipino food in New Orleans was at Chef Cristina Quackenbush’s sporadic Milkfish pop-ups, but on a hot tip from NOLA Food Goddess Lorin Gaudin, I discovered CK’s Hot Shoppe on the corner of Baronne and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Redefining the area’s plate lunches, CK’s features lumpiang with shrimp and pork, hot soups with pork or beef shank, shrimp pancit, chicken adobo and sisig – almost like a spicy, chopped pork hash with citrus and egg.
Some hidden gems aren’t all that hidden and hugely popular with the neighborhood regulars. One such is Chinese Kitchen. Though it’s in no way “authentic,” the owners of this little to-go spot in Gert Town are playing to their base with giant egg rolls and finger lickin’ boneless fried chicken. There’s almost always line out the door and it’s a challenge getting into the strip mall’s awkward parking lot on S. Carrollton Avenue, but believe me, it’s worth it!
When I used to work in the Warehouse District, one of my favorite lunch spots was a greasy kitchen inside a darkened bar on S. Peters dubbed Corporation Bar & Grill. This is the place to get a po-boy downtown that is not only scrumptious, it’s incredibly affordable. I was stuck on their fried catfish or shrimp po-boys, but they also offer other items like soft shell crab (when it’s in season), alligator sausage and a mouth-watering muffuletta.
Finally, I don’t think nearly enough people know about Chef Pete Vazquez’s Algiers eatery The Appetite Repair Shop. From Marisol to Mimi’s Restaurant in River Ridge, Vazquez has always possessed an unmatched creative flair, something he is able to fully embrace at his meals-to-go venue on the West Bank. The menu changes on his passing whims, and it’s just the way we like it with his most recent offerings being dishes like summer berry gazpacho, Thai roast pork and Banana Blossom salad, Caesar Salad with Spanish olives, green chile “fry bread” gorditas, grilled Pacific salmon and chocolate tres leches cupcakes with dulce de leche buttercream.
*Article originally published in the September 2019 issue of Where Y’at Magazine
*Heads & Tails Seafood and Oyster Bar is closed