WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
When Chef Frank Brigtsen--whose entire previous cooking career has been at the gourmet level--bought Charlie's, he made it clear that it would remain a very casual seafood house. And so it is. Poor boys, boiled seafood, fried seafood, gumbo, and daily specials all show no sign of any pernicious upscale creep. Prices are in line with other comparable restaurants. The only complaint I ever hear about the place is from people whose criterion for a good seafood platter is measurable in the height of the pile.
WHY IT'S GOOD
While everything you'd want from a seafood house is here, a few unusually high standards have been applied. Everything is fresh, in season, and prepared to order. To the extent possible, it's all local. Most notable in that regard is the catfish. Most of the time it's wild-caught fish--a rarity. Only a few ideas have filtered over from Frank's flagship restaurant--notably the unfired seafood platter, which could be served in any four-star establishment without alteration. The daily specials are unusually good.
For most of the history of Harahan, Charlie's has been the only restaurant in town. It opened in 1951, when Jefferson Highway was a rough two-lane blacktop and the place was a tiny hamlet. It was the kind of place you'd find in Bucktown or West End, with boiled seafood, oysters and fried platters, served in spartan surroundings. Charlie's didn't reopen permanently after Katrina until Frank and Marna Brigtsen--alumni of K-Paul's, with their own celebrated bistro in Riverbend--bought it. Frank grew up in the neighborhood, and decided that Charlie's needed to return. He renovated the place and reopened in July 2009. The sign says "Charles Sea Foods," but everybody has always called it Charlie's.
Charlie's is a brighter, more pleasant place than before the storm, but is still unambiguously a neighborhood eatery, without any sign of formality. Eating boiled seafood--a major specialty--requires dressing down. The main room is dominated by a long bar, glass-brick windows, and many visual reminders that you could be in no place but Louisiana. More, smaller dining rooms are found if you continue to the rear.
Boiled crabs, crawfish, or shrimp in season.
Seafood okra gumbo
Natchitoches-style meat pie
Dirty boy (everything that goes into dirty rice except rice, on French bread)
Oysters & artichoke au gratin
Poor boy sandwiches (Roast beef, pulled pork, ham and Swiss, fried catfish, shrimp, or oyster)
Catfish and grits with Creole sauce
Grilled fish with shrimp and oyster bordelaise
Fried seafood plates: catfish, oysters, or shrimp, or combinations
Un-fried seafood platter (grilled fish, baked oysters, shrimp cornbread)
Red beans and rice with jalapeno cornbread (Monday)
Grillades and grits (Tuesday)
Shrimp pasta bordelaise (Wednesday)
Butterbeans with ham and andouille (Thursday)
Seafood stuffed eggplant (Friday)
Ribeye steak with garlic butter (Saturday)
Cheddar cheese grits (side dish)
White chocolate bread pudding
Lemon creme brulee
FOR BEST RESULTS
Charlie's is small and usually very busy, and immediate seating in peak times is unlikely. That's what the bar and beer are for. Start with boiled seafood for the table, and figure out the rest of the meal while peeling.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
Two things I'd expect to find here are absent: oysters on the half shell and fresh-cut fries. Parking is sometimes challenging; you may have to park up the side street a half-block or more.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment
- Consistency +2
- Service +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +2
- Wine and Bar
- Local Color +2
- Medium private room
- Open Monday lunch
- Open all afternoon
- Quick, good meal
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- No reservations
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
We are learning--as are Frank and Marna Brigtsen--whether a dining institution as venerable as the casual New Orleans seafood joint can be dragged successfully into the modern era of cookery. As the one-year mark of the experiment approaches, it's so far, so good.
This review was updated with new information on 5/24/2010.
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