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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New Orleans Dining: The Two Perino's

Neither of the two Perino outlets remotely resembles

pastoral bayou backwater daydreams.

This is a test with three (more or less) questions. It’s not one of those silly magazine self-help deals where “there are no wrong answers.” There are wrong answers, and if you happen to stub your toe on one, well, you should probably think of eating somewhere else. Here we go:

1. How authentic of an experience do you really want? No weaseling “I’m a good sport,” but really?

2. How local do you want to go?

3. Do you know how to suck the head, and if so, are you willing?

The correct answers are:

1. (Gulp) Bring it on.

2. Fully leaded.

3. Yes, and you betcha.

Most visitors to New Orleans almost never cross the Crescent City Connection bridge and venture to the West Bank, a continuing cluster of bedroom communities where the farther you go, the bluer the collars get. (Don’t feel bad about it. In truth, natives on the “city side” of the river rarely make the trip, either.)

The main drag connecting the ‘burbs of Algiers, Gretna, Harvey, Marrero and Westwego is the largely elevated Westbank Expressway, which for the most part rises above frontage roads lined with aging shopping centers, big box stores, chain restaurants, fast food joints and other landmarks of suburban American blight. For some reason, whenever I drive it, the word “frowzy” comes to mind.

In hard-working New Orleans, a lot of the people providing the muscle live on the West Bank: refinery workers, fisherman, pipefitters, dockworkers and the like. While the area is gradually becoming, if not gentrified, at least a little more urbane, the ethos remains one of hard work, family values, go Saints and a headstrong demand for better-than-average food at a better-than-average price.

While the culinary landscape on the West Bank is changing along with the demographics (i.e., Vietnamese and Mexican eateries are sprouting up everywhere), the mainstay remains traditional New Orleans cooking. Longstanding places like Café 615 (“Da Wabbit”) and The Red Maple Inn continue to flourish. While success in a food-crazy area is always dependent upon the quality of what’s on the plate, it strikes me that a surefire formula for success in the area would include substantial plate lunches and generous portions of family friendly chow at dinner.

Straddling the line between Harvey and Marrero are two seafood places operated by the Perino family. Sam Perino’s Seafood & Deli is on the westbound frontage road off Westbank Expressway, while Perino’s Boiling Pot II is poised a few blocks away along the eastbound side. In other words, they get you coming and going.

To no one’s surprise, the places specialties are seafood in general and boiled (locally pronounced “burled”) in particular.

Perhaps it’s too many movies or episodes of The History Channel’s Swamp People, but for me, the idea of boiled Louisiana seafood has always conjured up imagery of tin-roofed, cypress shacks trimmed with multicolored Christmas light in clearings of trees dripping with Spanish moss. Yellow light streams out the window and the mating calls of frogs are drowned out by the clattering frottoir, the reedy chords of a piano accordion and the sawing fiddle of a zydeco band as they work their way through yet another rowdy chorus of Jolie Blon.

Well, forget it. Neither of the two Perino outlets remotely resembles such pastoral bayou backwater daydreams.

Sam Perino’s Seafood & Deli (let’s just refer to it as “No. 1” from here on out) is long on seafood and short on deli. It’s really nothing more than a mom-and-pop fish market with three or four small, utilitarian tables in between two rows of cases. The deli counter, such as it is, is a small work area underneath a limited menu board featuring a couple of plate lunches and a few sandwiches. Along a back wall is a metal table covered with whatever seasonal seafood is being offered at the time. In truth, the dining area looks like it should be nothing more than a break room where employees can grab a quick bite before getting back to work. To call No.1 “no frills” would be an overstatement.

The Sensible One and I discovered No. 1 by accident while we were driving in circles looking for Perino’s Boiling Pot, which we had read about in a reliable local entertainment newspaper (Gambit Weekly). On our first step inside No, 1, we knew we either had to be in the wrong place or else the reporter was drunk, but we chose to look around anyway. I don’t know if I was duly or unduly impressed with the place, but favorably impressed I was, and I’ll tell you why.

No. 1 smelled salty and coastal, yet clean. Missing was the immediately recognizable odor of fish on the brink of outstaying its welcome. The absence of such an off-putting aroma encouraged the two of us to wander and look around what proved to be a widely inventoried and well-stocked market. Like the deli area is 100% about seafood and 0% about décor, the market appears to be 100% about freshness and 0% presentation or merchandizing. It is definitely a place we’ll visit again to shop and won’t have the slightest hesitation about grabbing lunch while we’re at it.

Once we got turned around and were headed eastbound, it was only a matter of blocks before we saw the sign for the Boiling Pot. The restaurant is attached to the front of a low-cost motel, which may not have been a hot sheets hangout, but looked like the linens were at least a little warm. Flanking the entrance to the restaurant are kitschy statues of a six-foot crawfish and an equally tall gator that look like fugitives from a crumbling miniature golf course. The rest of the exterior is finished out in an unsteady blend of cartoonish swamp life paintings and beer neons. The overall appearance is that of the kind of place, which, as with clichés, I avoid like the plague.

The interior of the Boiling Pot is visually schizophrenic. Take away the menagerie of taxidermized critters and you’re left with a barroom and a lunchroom with all the charm of a junior high school cafeteria. The tables are in rows arranged for communal seating under fluorescent lights. Arcade games along the back wall flicker and beep. The two rooms are bifurcated by a take-out counter. It would be fair to surmise that the only people who go there for the décor tap the linoleum floors with white canes.

While the Boiling Pot offers three salads, nine fried baskets and four appetizers beyond oysters on the half shell, in addition to keeping the gumbo pot simmering away on the stove, it’s all more or less window dressing. The restaurant’s raison d’être is boiled seafood, period.

Depending on the season, the centerpiece of the menu will be boiled crawfish, shrimp, blue crabs or the larger Dungeness crabs. While Louisiana’s seafood industry hasn’t totally recovered from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the shellfish coming out of the Perino boilers are once again plentiful and affordable, not to mention the most thoroughly inspected in the world and totally cleared for safety.

The shellfish species are all indigenous to Louisiana, of course, but the one least known to people outside the immediate gulf area is the crawfish, which itself has become an unofficial logo for the state’s Cajun subculture. For those unfamiliar with the nicknamed “mudbug,” an interesting take on the crawfish’s rise in popularity can be found on New Orleans magazine editor Errol Laborde’s blog (http://www.myneworleans.com/Blogs/The-Editors-Room/April-2011/How-the-Crawfish-Became-a-Star/).

Three of the four available sides are the traditional accompaniments for a Louisiana seafood boil: ears of corn, red potatoes and smoked sausage links. (For diners to whom traditions matter little, the Boiling Pot also serves the ubiquitous French fry.) While the place offers full bar service, the time-honored drink of choice at a seafood boil is beer, cold beer, as icy as possible. The owners of the Boiling Pot obviously understand what a crucial component ice-cold beer is to a successful seafood and suds blowout as evidenced by their thoughtful choice to put plastic-encased batons of ice in every pitcher.

A quick scan around the room with its frosty pitchers and platters of steaming seafood tells you that the people who come to the Boiling Pot take the good life seriously. The dress code, such as it is, falls somewhere between tattered and downright scruffy, because these people know that cracking into crabs, peeling shrimp and sucking the fat out of crawfish heads is wet and sloppy work requiring rolled-up sleeves, rolls of paper towels and a total disregard for the possibility of flying shells and dropping husks rendering spotless fashions into splattered rags.

There’s a shopworn phrase that regularly crops up in magazine ads in tourist towns like New Orleans: “Where the Locals Eat.” That clinker always struck me like quality, honesty and virginity; the more frequently it’s brought into the conversation, the less likely it is to be true. If you really want to eat alongside the locals, make a beeline to either of the Perino seafood operations and open your ears. They will be assaulted by the Broolyn-esque staccato of the Upper Ninth Ward patois and caressed by the lilt of Cajun French.

In the end, there’s nothing fancy about either No. 1 or the Boiling Pot. The rooms forsake style for function and there isn’t a fingerbowl in sight, but the seafood steams, the beer is frosty and if you leave any airs you may have at the door, well, you’re going to fit in just fine.

Sam Perino’s Seafood & Deli

Louisiana Shellfish

6850 Westbank Expressway in Marrero

(9.8 miles by auto from the intersection of St. Charles Avenue, Royal and Canal Streets)

Open Seven days

All major credit cards honored

No reservations

Telephone (501) 347-5410

No website

Perino’s Boiling Pot II

Louisiana Shellfish

3754 Westbank Expressway in Harvey

(7.7 miles by auto from the intersection of St. Charles Avenue, Royal and Canal Streets)

Lunch and Dinner Daily

All major credit cards honored

No reservations

Telephone (501) 340-5560

No website

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