Tuesday, April 3, 2012.
Deliciously Mundane. Guests On Catfish, Easter Chocolates, And Passover. Little Chinatown.
My standard breakfast at home is fruit (usually two oranges, cut into sections), bread (usually a slice of multi-grain toast with blueberry jam), and café au lait (no variations, ever). I like all these things well enough, and they accomplish such specific ends, that the meal never bores me. In fact, I look forward to the regimen when I wake up.
Mary Ann doesn't feel the same way. One morning last year, right before we were due to leave for a trip, we canceled it. I threw a mental switch and went right into my morning routine. Mary Ann, on the other hand, needed to stew about it a bit. Watching me juice my oranges and toast my slice of bread depressed her. Instead of going off somewhere, she was stuck home doing the same old things. Ever since, I've tried to keep the making of my breakfast out of her sight.
But some mornings I can't, because she's in the kitchen. Today, for example. I tried to spin it. "I think I'll make this a buttermilk biscuit day!" I said, with cartoonish cheer.
"That's so lucky for you!" she said. "Almost to the point of giving me a tic!" She stepped out to take the dog Susie for a walk.
My mind flashed back to a moment in the 1960s. I was working at the Time Saver, stocking the shelves. I stamped a case of Kellogg's Special K Handi-Paks with my mechanical price marker (the kind that used to put the purple prices on everything in those pre-scanner days). I paused to consider the product. It was eight of those little boxes of cereal you see in low-end hotel buffets. They employed the Kel-Bowl-Pak technology, by which you can (still can!) cut into the side of the box along the perforations, pour the milk right in, and eat right out of the box.
The Handi-Pak was a companion to the Variety Pak (ten different cereals in one pak) and the Snack Pak (six different sweet cereals, designed for kids). The Handi-Pak was designed for people who like "one fresh serving of your favorite cereal for each day of the week!" as the cheerful copy on the back of the Pak said. And. . .
"With one extra serving for that big Sunday breakfast!"
Think about that for a moment.
Fifteen years later, I wrote about the Handi-Pak in an article about creative boredom for the old Figaro weekly newspaper. Kathleen Joffrion Perry--a superb illustrator who did a lot of work for Figaro--was assigned to draw the graphics for the piece. One of them depicted a table holding a cereal bowl with a spoon in it and two open, empty boxes of Special K. Visible from the neck down was a man hanging in back of the table. "Another Handi-Pak suicide," the legend said.
The round table radio show today featured a mismatched trio of guests. It proved that even in a situation like that, a conversation can take hold if the guests loosen up and stay long enough. The first to arrive was Mark Fayard, the current owner of Bozo's. He brought his eleven-year-old daughter Bella with him. I asked her what radio station she liked best. "I like B-97," she said. Great! Their studio is right next to mine! Would she like to meet Stevie G. and T-Pot--the afternoon deejays? Her eyes widened, and I took her over there. She came back a few minutes later with a B-97 T-shirt and a happy smile. I would have killed for such an opportunity when I was her age.
It was just me and Mark (and Bella) for most of the first hour. It was a little awkward. I have been saying for a year or two that Bozo's has not made the jump to the next generation especially well. Even though Chris "Bozo" Vodonovich still comes in three or four days a week, he's no longer doing most of the cooking, and the consistency isn't what it once was. But we had other things to talk about. Bozo's still is the only local fish house I know that uses only wild-caught Des Allemands catfish.
Then Joel Brown arrived. When he was in his teens, he started a business called Kosher Cajun Deli and Grocery. His family had decided to take their Judaism more seriously and became strictly kosher. He found sources for kosher food around New Orleans were limited. He thought there were enough observant Jews here to support a business. And so there was.
Passover begins this Friday. "Passover is to kosher food what Christmas is to jewelry stores," Joel said. "I have two containers of product in my parking lot right now. I need them for storage this time of year." Indeed, he had to leave early, because he's the only one at the Kosher Cajun who knows how to use the fork lift, and the store needed some of what was in the containers.
The third guest, showing up in the final hour, was Tareq Hanna, the chef and partner of Sucre. Mary Ann says that whenever she wants to feel as if she's in Beverly Hills, she goes to Sucre. It's an elegant boutique of sweets on Magazine Street, opened in 2007 by Joel Dondis and partners. It's grown a lot since then, to include a major confectionary in Mid-City.
A virtual, polite fight broke out, without a word spoken. We had three women in attendance: Mary Ann (listening on the radio), Mindy (my producer, on the other side of the window), and Bella, there in the studio. Chocolate lovers all. I would have to be the one to dole out what Tareq (name rhymes with "car wreck") to the ladies. I almost got it right. At home, Mary Ann asked whether the three chocolate eggs were all there was.
To dinner at Little Chinatown, a restaurant I've heard a lot about lately from radio listeners and readers. It's in what looks like a renovated Pizza Hut, in that part of Williams Boulevard in Kenner that's loaded with ethnic restaurants. Right there on the same corner are a Central American grocery and café, the House of Shishkebab, and the Kased Brothers' halal butcher shop. Kenner already can claim to be the most ethnically diverse section of the local dining map. I clearly need to come out here more often.
Little Chinatown is a good deal more ethnic than most other local Chinese places. In one corner of the dining room is a glass hotbox in which hung two sides of roasted pig and several roasted ducks. The latter still had the heads on and hung by their necks. The whole place smelled like cooking.
Most of the menu was familiar. I see that Mandarin chicken--a favorite among non-Asian Orleanians, and one of the worst dishes in our Chinese restaurants--had to be written in by hand. (It's the customers that make or break a restaurant.) I didn't get anything I knew, and started with sizzling jasmine rice soup. It was an enormous bowl filled with broth and fresh vegetables. A meal unto itself for six dollars. It came with six squares of puffed rice. I never could figure out what to do with them.
The young waiter tried to warn me away from the Empress chicken. "It's served cold," he said. Tell me more. "It's a half chicken, boiled and chilled, chopped up with the bones still in. There are a lot of bones." What about a sauce? "There's a cold ginger sauce." He still looked dubious, but how bad could it be? In fact, I thought it was pretty good, but I didn't put a big dent in it. First, I'd stuffed myself on the soup. Second, I'm not very good at nibbling bones with small amounts of meat on them. And I'd lost my napkin. But that ginger sauce was very interesting. A little oily, but a great flavor.
I kept looking at those ducks all night, and watched several of them taken down and served. I think duck is the ticket here.
Bozo's. Metairie: 3117 21st Street. 504-831-8666.
Kosher Cajun Deli. Metairie: 3519 Severn. 504-888-2010.
Sucre. Uptown: 3025 Magazine. 504-520-8311.
Little Chinatown. Kenner: 3800 Williams Blvd. 504-252-9898.
It's over three years since a day was missed in the Dining Diary. To browse through all of the entries since 2008, go here.
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