Aug. 1 2014 04:12 PM

Old Town eatery serves great Louisiana cuisine, but don't get excited about the bread

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New Orleans Creole Cafe’s shrimp po’boy
Photo by Mina Riazi

Everyone's a tourist somewhere. Still, nothing will make you forget that faster than a tourist-logged sidewalk on a sweaty Sunday in July. Suddenly, the "T" word becomes a curse word. Plucking a path around the sparky sightseers, you blurt the two syllables under your breath, as if together they form the greatest insult of all time: tourists. 

Despite riding on a hop-on, hop-off tour bus last summer in Barcelona, I felt nothing but contempt for the touristy mass clogging the streets of Old Town last week. I hungered for an escape—and for an early dinner. Located just off the main road, New Orleans Creole Café seemed like a solid solution to my childish whining.

I soon learned that the charming restaurant (2476 San Diego Ave.), with its breezy outdoor patio dotted by red-and-white striped umbrellas, inhabits haunted grounds. The Travel Channel recently termed the nearby Whaley House "one of America's most haunted houses." The café occupies the leafy Whaley garden, so ghosts just might be playing hide and seek among the trees. 

Fortunately, no spectral encounters disrupted my dinner. Opened in 2004, the café is owned and operated by Mark Bihm and Humberto Villegas. According to the eatery's website, Bihm is a "New Orleans native with family dating back to the 1750s in Opelousas, Louisiana." The menu reflects the co-owner's deep-rooted history with the former French colony. 

Classic Creole dishes like jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish étouffée and shrimp creole are appropriately served with a wedge of French baguette. The bread is unremarkable, though, lacking the textural complexity that defines a good baguette: a crackly crust and a soft, chewy center. 

For the most part, the crawfish étouffée doesn't need its carby companion. A white-rice dome sits smack-dab in the center of the dish and provides enough richness. Celery, bell pepper and onion—dubbed the "holy trinity" of Creole and Cajun cuisines—combine with a light golden roux to create the flavorful sauce. 

Along with the jambalaya, the étouffée is one of Creole Café's most talked-about specialties. I understand why: The meaty crawfish tails are chewy, tender and flaunt a clean, not-briny flavor; the sauce balances tart and buttery flavor notes. A crunchy hunk of bread would have been nice to mop up the last soupy spoonfuls, but c'est la vie.

If it werenít for another inadequate loaf, the shrimp po'boy would have been a top-notch sandwich. Unfortunately, the bread was a too-soft behemoth whose sheer bulk distracted from the shrimp. I ended up refashioning the po'boy, setting aside half of the bread so that I could focus more on the crisp, lightly battered shrimp. With its balance restored, the sandwich tasted great, especially after getting dunked in cocktail sauce. 

Bread pudding, doused in whiskey sauce and served hot, concluded our meal. Creole Café's version of the thrifty dessert is less pudding-like and more cake-like in texture, but still enticing. More importantly, though, the bread—snubbed by the entrées—was finally able to show its good side.


Write to minar@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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