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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

Friday, April 27, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Seither's Seafood

It’s smallish, around a dozen tables, a size that seems
to be a harbinger of good chow to come in New Orleans. 

If, as it is said, confession is good for the soul, let me do my scruffy soul a little good.

I have always had a soft spot (not to be confused with my often soft head) for places that can politely be called “shacks,” when not being less graciously called “dumps.”

Surely you know the type of place I’m talking about. You’re driving down a back street that’s totally new to you, when you see a semi-ramshackle joint and drive right on by, even as you comment to your companion, “Gee, I bet they dish up some pretty good chow in there.” When or if you stop, you take a chance, and the odds are roughly 50-50 the meal will either be awful or border on the divine. Sometimes the food ends up being right in the middle, sure, but when the place is enough of a dive, you’re either going to vote it up or down.

The greater New Orleans area is covered up with mid- to downscale dives, but one I happened across when lost and looking for someplace else has become more of a favorite with every visit. Seither’s Seafood has only been around since 2004, making it a relative pup in a city where it seems that most restaurants of its ilk are at least a half-century old and on their second, third or higher generation of family ownership. One look at the building tells you it either had a couple of previous business incarnations or a singularly hard decade.

Seither’s is hidden away in suburban Harahan, a bedroom community with an apparent case of multiple personality disorder not terribly far from the rickety Huey P. Long Bridge. Parts of Harahan are white collar, housing legions of sales representatives and other types whose lives are bettered by proximity to nearby Louis Armstrong International Airport, but the township is mostly middle-class leaning toward blue collar. The combination restaurant and neighborhood fish market is located on Hickory Avenue, a desultory strip of small, nondescript businesses for which high-visibility locations or heavy traffic counts are of seemingly little consequence.

The joint is quintessentially Crescent City. Before opening the place, its proprietor, Jason Seither, sold cars for a spell and worked as a bartender in another combination restaurant and fish market in the next suburb. His namesake restaurant has made as much of its solid reputation through roast beef poor boys as it has for seafood. From all appearances he’s making pretty decent money in a place most people don’t know exists and is tough to find for those who do. All this seems to add up to success in “the city that care forgot,” where few people stick to the rules and many seem to make them up as they go along.

 Once you walk in the gaudily painted glass door of Seither’s, you enter a room that looks exactly like what you’d expect from outside. It’s smallish, around a dozen tables, a size that seems to be a harbinger of good chow to come in New Orleans. It’s a relatively homely room that leaves no doubt that you have entered perhaps the archetypal mom-and-pop café.  The walls are the color of lemon icebox pie, the furniture utilitarian and in place of napkins on the plain tables are rolls of paper towels. A drop ceiling with recessed fluorescents gives the room all the ambient charm of a bail bondsman’s office. All of that is, of course, mercifully secondary to the food.

Years ago, roughly around the time Methuselah and I were a pair of rascally schoolboys, any café or restaurant’s success or failure was determined entirely by the quality of the food served on the plate. Somewhere in the not too distant past, people stopped simply going to lunch or dinner but rather became participants in “the dining experience.” It’s my personal theory that the whole “experience” angle was cooked up by marketing hotshots hired by restaurants where the food sucked. At any rate, it’s Seither’s retrograde and, one suspects dogged, commitment to a laser-like focus on the food that keeps the glass front door swinging open and shut.

The success of Seither’s roast beef poor boy is based upon two divergent factors. The first of these was the havoc wreaked upon the city’s seafood industry by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Seither’s reopened shortly after the storm, shrimp and oysters were nigh on impossible to find and buy. Consequently, the fledgling restaurant was forced to concentrate on the foodstuffs it could actually procure for simple survival.

The second factor was also driven by necessity. While many poor boy shops purchase pre-cooked beef for their sandwiches, Jason Seither was still in his early years struggling for survival and he found that he could buy uncooked sirloin tip roast for less. This he did, slowly cooking it in what he refers to as “crock pot style,” a process thought to yield a richer integration of meat and gravy. While self-appointed poor boy purists regularly argue about beef cuts and cooking techniques (a continuing, irresolvable argument no one ever wins), Seither’s version of the New Orleans classic quickly developed a loyal following and remains one of the most commonly ordered items to this day.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the roast beef poor boy’s popularity is that the sandwich comes from a restaurant that’s an adjunct to a fresh seafood market. It’s certainly not uncommon for a poor boy joint to be serving both meat and seafood creations, to be sure, but it’s somewhat unexpected and perhaps moderately ironic for the restaurant satellite to the seafood market mother ship to set the cornerstone of the combined operation’s reputation upon a foundation of sirloin tip.

It would be a shortsighted mistake, however, to overlook Seither’s seafood poor boys. The shrimp offering overflows with expertly fried shrimp, the taste of which explodes with the unmistakable sweetness of the shellfish when it’s freshly caught

On a recent visit, The Sensible One saw a blackboard special called the “Oysterpalooza” or some equally gimmicky moniker. Essentially it’s Seither’s take on the “Peacemaker,” a combination fried oysters, bacon and cheddar poor boy so named because it was often given to angry wives as a peace offering by husbands staggering in from a hard night of carousing. It was as good as it was big, and the size of it straddled the line between the words “mammoth” and “gargantuan.” We could have easily split the silly thing and waddled out of the joint without even thinking about dessert.

Other poor boys that looked equally intriguing were one featuring a crab cake topped with shrimp sauce, and the shrimp remoulade special the kitchen prepared for the 2010 festival honoring the city’s legendary sandwich.

During crawfish season, the heart of which is generally considered to run from Mardi Gras through Memorial Day, parades of beer trays holding piles of steaming mudbugs steadily stream from the kitchen, augmented by traditional corn-on-the-cob and new potatoes. While the bevy of other choices have so far kept me from sampling a mountain of scorching bugs, I find myself wondering if I’ve made a mistake every time I see or catch a whiff as another tray parades out of the kitchen. They are reputed to be among the city’s best, and the prospect of a steaming pile of them probably merits a single-digit spot on my personal bucket list.

As good as all the sampled chow is and yet-to-be-sampled promises to be, I’m quite sure that if I brought up the Seither’s name in a game of Word Association, The Sensible One would immediately blurt out, “Onion rings!” As much as she considers herself a connoisseur of the deep fried gems, in truth she’s more of a fanatic. While the Seither’s thick cut and heavily battered entry into her relentless quest for the indisputably best onion ring in the world is the most recent to be awarded the crown, it joins a list that over the years has included “frings” at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, the mountainous servings of thickly slicked rings at Mandina’s, Café 615 (“Home of Da Wabbit”) on the West Bank, Katie’s in Mid-City, a brief nod to the thin-cut rings at Charlie’s Steakhouse and even an honorable mention to the deep-fried green pepper rings at Franky and Johnnie’s Uptown roadhouse. Nonetheless, it remains a ringing endorsement, and one richly deserved.

One of the true joys of learning New Orleans, where joy’s pursuit is part of the hardwiring, is coming to terms with the hope that all it takes is making one more turn and you face the very real possibility of stumbling upon a restaurant that’s not only good for lunch, it may be one for the ages.

When I think about another visit down that scruffy Harahan back street to Seither’s, and I find myself doing just that more and more, I am struck by the unexpected convergence of exigent circumstances, inventiveness, resolve and karma it seems to take to elevate a commonplace neighborhood café into a restaurant worthy of a pilgrimage across a city renowned for its eateries.

In a way, it’s like a lightning strike in that you know it happens, you’ve seen it happen, but you know the odds are long that it will ever happen to you. But it happened for Jason Seither and if you’re willing to wander a little bit out of your war, you’ll be rewarded with the chance to savor its power.

Seither’s Seafood
Neighborhood Casual
279 Hickory Avenue in Harahan
Open Tuesday – Thursday, 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Friday, 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Saturday, 5:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Visa and MasterCard Honored
No reservations
Telephone: (504) 738-1116
No website

Food Photos: TereeC.@yelp.com