926 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Since the last time I reviewed Chateau Orleans for Mardi Gras, 2001, it’s been through at least two changes of ownership. I wasn’t crazy about the food, and then the second-to-last owner complained that our capsule review was out of date, so we pulled the capsule and I made a mental note to go back someday.
Now summer’s coming on, and summer brings up a mad craving for Creole food, for sipping hurricanes from plastic go-cups on the street and rocking all night to Cajun two-step or blues at Tip’s, for pulling ice cubes out of my Jack Daniel’s rocks to run over my face and neck. My last visit to New Orleans was a long-ago August. You have to be nuts or have some urgent half-sane reason to go to the Crescent City in summertime, when the livin’ is sweaty. My reason was a free house-sit at a friend’s semi-air-conditioned shotgun in the Faubourg Marigny. Loved living like a native, courtly horse-carriage drivers in the Quarter gently wafting their courting calls while I was snail-pacing along, schlepping home groceries from Schwegmann’s. Once some dumb crew-cut tourist even took me in my skaggy little all-hang-out sundress for a local ho — except that when I had to do laundry, I was the homeliest woman in the washateria, the only biological female among the glamour gals. Yeah, you right — I (heart) N’awlins.
We don’t have much NOLA food left here in San Diego. We’ve lost Bayou Bar and Grill (long ago), and its casual reincarnation Bud’s, and the fabulous Juke Joint Café with its great gumbo and jazz. We’ve still got marvelous Magnolias out in Encanto, Mardi Gras Café, mainly for take-out, and Fix Me a Plate at the easternmost edge of La Mesa. So it was time to return to Chateau Orleans with a full posse, and we deliberately ordered way too much food so as to give it a good shot. There’s got to be a reason for the restaurant’s enduring popularity, I figured. Well, it’s a terrific-looking spot, plenty of space and air, nice rustic feel, with Louisiana folk art on the walls for the eyes to feast on. The music that night was provided by blues singer Tomcat, who looks like a younger B.B. King, plays a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins riffs, and chooses songs ranging from Delta blues to Jimmy Reed to Howlin’ Wolf to Gershwin (“Summertime” sung as country blues — aces!).
The newest owner, with a neat, gray beard and gentle vibes, understands the NOLA concept of “lagniappe” — “a little something extra.” He offered us a free demi-carafe of his housemade watermelon wine, and free French-press chicory coffee at the end. I liked him. I hate to give his restaurant one and a half stars. I tried to talk myself into two stars, but I just couldn’t do it. Chances are too high for a bad meal unless you order exactly the right stuff.
This could be a great restaurant if only the food were better. And the drinks, too. We went on a Thursday night, with hurricanes only $5 each. Since my friends drove me, I’d planned on a long hurricane season, but the first sip instantly changed the weather. That was no hurricane, only a drizzle — sweet, insipid, mild. Dave took a taste: “Reminds me of Jim Jones in Guyana — Kool-Aid.” We switched to cheap and good Chilean wines.
Among the best sections of the menu is one called “I Just Want a Little Taste,” which offers cup-size portions of four dishes for $7 each. Crawfish bisque is available this way only, and it’s terrific: a heavy, creamy brew studded with corn and crawfish tails. A ramekin of sherry comes on the side, to stir in by spoonfuls (if you’re smart) to your exact taste. We used about 5/8 of it, and it was truly a good soup.
The red beans from this section include a little rice but no sausage (for that, you need to order the entrée portion), but the beans are sound and tasty. You can also get a cup of gumbo, which I’d recommend, and jambalaya, which I’m not sure you should ever order in any form (more details later). These dishes are offered on several entrée combos, but they’re roughed up a bit when the unruly crowds result in them being slopped onto the plates in groups.
Barbecued scallops are available as a starter, an entrée, and on some combos. I’m not mad about Louisiana barbecue sauces, which tend to be simple, sweet, and goopy. The one here certainly fits that bill. The scallops were putatively “blackened” (invisibly) and wrapped in hickory-smoked bacon, but they were tasteless enough to pass for tofu. Did the kitchen buy a lifetime supply of its “blackening spice” when the restaurant first opened years ago and failed to replace it as the taste has faded away with old age? Actually, I don’t know why there are scallops on this menu but no oysters. Or no mirliton (chayote squash), which is so readily available here. Or no grits (as in grillades and grits). Or no redfish (or snapper as a substitute), no trout, no finfish but catfish. No shrimp remoulade. Sigh. You’re not in NOLA, that’s for sure.
Many appetizers are (surprise!) deep-fried things, so typical of the Deep South. When they’re good, they can be great: “purple fries” are brilliant, with battered, skin-on eggplant wedges fried until the flesh explodes into a creamy-soft melted marshmallow texture. Even the Lynnester, who can be picky, fell under their spell. The batter is flecked with herb leaves and bits of carrot and spiked with a discreet touch of cayenne. This isn’t the way Galatoire’s cooks their fried eggplant fingers, but it’s at least as good.
Fried dill pickles, a soul food classic, are fun: Salty, greasy, bad for you in every way, they come with a ranch dip, same as the purple fries. A combo called Granny’s Goodies, however, reminds me of Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch. The catfish nuggets are played by drawling, leering Strother Martin. The alligator bites are unbathed Warren Oates. But you can also order the decent Cajun popcorn (oh, rare Ben Johnson) on its own without the sleazy sidekicks. Those crawfish tails, solo, are a better bet and six bucks cheaper, too.