Make Mine the Special

Across the restaurant industry and its customer base, there seems to be several schools of thought surrounding specials. Where do they come from? Is it always a deal? What makes them so special?

There are all kinds of reasons a certain dish might be designated as a special. Some restaurants have day-of-the-week specials, such as red beans and rice every Monday or steak night Thursdays, and they’re typically discounted and targeted towards regular customers.

Specials are also created because the chef or restaurant owner was able to acquire a unique ingredient and they want to show it off in a new recipe. Often the ingredient is one that is in limited quantities and won’t keep long, like a crate of soft shell crabs, or a small, backyard harvest of figs.

The least appetizing reason a restaurant might list a special is to quickly sell dishes made up of ingredients which are “on the turn.” As anyone who cooks will know, we all have those items in the refrigerator screaming “Use us now, or you will never have the chance again!” Restaurants have the same problem and, like us, they hate any level of food waste. Throwing out food not only makes for bad business, it’s not sustainable. In the U.S. alone, we’re tossing out an estimated 30-40% of the food produced each year, all of this when more than 34 million people are food insecure . . . but that’s another article.

All kinds of restaurants offer specials, from white tablecloth affairs to the food trucks parked outside your office building, but it’s frequently the mom and pop shops who offer the most bang for your buck.

Just take for example the munchable lunch specials at Crawlin’s Seafood. This relatively new Terrytown restaurant was launched concurrently (and wisely) with the start of crawfish season in the spring of 2022 by cousins Jimmy and Anthony Nguyen. While Crawlin’s focus lies in its Viet-Cajun style of boiled local seafood, they also offer incredibly affordable, stick-to-your-ribs lunch specials all for $11.95. Regular, day-of-the-week specials include smothered pork chop Tuesdays and spaghetti and (mammoth) meat balls on Wednesdays, but every now and again there’s a little something different like a deep-fried shrimp “burger” and a pile of their battered, Cajun-seasoned fries.

On the 700 block of Baronne Street, just around the corner from the bougie South Market District, lies a restaurant that epitomizes the mom and pop called Leni’s Cafe. Open for over half a century, the tiny diner owned and operated by Pete Patselikos (at least since 1978), is frequented by people of all collars working in the area hungry for comfort food. Like any diner worth its salt, Leni’s offers breakfast and lunch fundamentals – eggs, grits, hash browns, biscuits, bacon, po-boys, sandwiches, and salads – with no plate (aside from seafood po-boys) exceeding the $11 mark. What really stands out are the numerous, daily plate lunch specials, no fewer than 7 or 8 per day, Monday through Friday. We’re talking dishes such as Monday’s chicken fried steak with red beans and rice ($11.50), Veal Parmesan with spaghetti and tomato salad ($11.50) on Tuesday, and a stuffed bell pepper served with butter beans and beet salad on Wednesday ($11.50).

Back across the river in Algiers, Terrytown and Marrero (they also have one on the Northshore in Covington), lies three locations of DiMartino’s, a Westbank lunch staple that’s been in business since 1975. Though they’re known for their “famous” muffulettas, DiMartino’s serves a lot of New Orleans Italian lunch fare, from meatball sandwiches and Eggplant Parmigiana, to fried oyster po-boys and seafood platters. One of their best deals, a regular special, if you will, is the 5 inch po-boy combos, so you can get a small muffuletta or a roast beef po-boy with a brimming cup of rich, hearty gumbo and a mound of their highly-coveted potato salad for under $15!

We’re finishing with a restaurant which has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows, whether they’re about New Orleans or not, Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe. Located in the Treme neighborhood on Esplanade Avenue, this iconic local cafe, owned and operated by the Baquet family, has not let fame go to their heads. They still offer great deals on foods “hot out the pot” with daily specials such as red beans and rice with a slice of cornbread on Mondays for $8.25, or you can add two pieces of their crispy fried chicken, bringing the total to a whopping $13.50. While red beans are always a worthwhile, belly-filling plate, we save our ducats for Thursday’s special of savory smothered okra with rice and fried chicken for only $15.25. Is it lunchtime yet?

*Article originally published in the December 2023 issue of Where Y’at Magazine

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