The last of the regular Louisiana choices is red beans and rice, an abomination. This dish started as a Monday washday dinner because it simmers without much attention for hours, while Mama’s at the washateria. The beans are cooked at leisure with some type of fatty, smoky pork (smoked hocks, leftover hambone, or, for the health-conscious, smoked turkey wings) until their liquid tastes deep and rich, not just beany, but smoky and meaty. Before serving, additional pork products (whole or chopped-up sausages, chunks of ham or tasso, even franks) are tossed in to cook in the thick liquid. Red beans and rice has become one of those iconic New Orleans dishes, a staple of local house parties on Mardi Gras Day, cooked in huge quantities and served to guests passing through from one celebration to the next.
At Indigo, no fatty or smoky meat has been harmed to produce this broth. The beans taste as if they’ve been cooked in plain water to be all-purpose ready for, say, vegetarian chili, or other dishes on the menu. They come with those over-fried slices of andouille. I can’t remember whether or not they also had blackened chicken.
Worse to come: We also tried a special of grilled double pork chop étouffée stuffed with shrimp. Paul Prudhomme — NOT. The stuffing proved a dry bread-crumb fluff, with maybe some chopped shrimp in there, but who knows? Who could eat it? The pork was cooked to shoe leather. The mac ’n’ cheese on the side was mild and glutinous. I wouldn’t even doggy-bag the leavings, which was nearly all of it. Emmy took it home for her real canine pets.
I’m not saying that Indigo Café is a bad restaurant — after all, Tin Fork liked the American dishes he tried, and much of our food was edible. If you work downtown, you can sit on the patio when day is done, lounge in the sun, and drink some rum. But if you’re looking for Creole or Cajun food, what’s most remarkable here is its 100 percent failure rate. Have the owners never heard of cookbooks? For a few bucks’ investment, the kitchen could get some education. (Start with the basic New Orleans Cookbook by Richard and Rima Collin, available in paperback.)
The food, at least the Louisiana side of it, works out much like the room: There are pictures of the jazz and blues greats all over but none of their music playing — and nothing remotely soulful coming off the stove.
A Few More New Orleans Cookbooks: all available on Amazon.com.
Cooking Up a Storm. Gathered and issued by the NOLA Times-Picayune, this paperback is a collection of home recipes, restaurant dishes, and newspaper recipes lost to the damage of Katrina but recovered from readers and the newspaper’s files. It’s already a home-cooking favorite of mine.
Real Cajun by Donald Link. This has to be the anti-Prudhomme book, by one of the top chefs in Nawlins, born Cajun, who has taken up making his own sausages, et al. There’s more than that in here — plenty of plain country eats. I haven’t cooked from it yet, just slavered over the recipes.
My New Orleans by John Besh. How to cook like Nawlins’ current top chef.
Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer. Another top chef, but her version of NOLA cooking lightens it and brings it up to date with Cal cuisine. Great food, but not traditional.
Tom Fitzmorris’s New Orleans Food. Restaurant and home recipes, large-format paperback. In the few years since I bought it, I haven’t used it. Don’t know why not. So many cookbooks, so little time.
Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse: Stick to their first cookbooks, before they became celebrities. Both are useful for serious cooks. Prudhomme’s dishes are labor-intensive and scary rich, but that’s just how it is. Emeril pre-BAM! is straightforward, a decent starter to cooking NOLA-style — although the very best recipe comes from his New England childhood, a Portuguese greens, potato, and sausage soup.
1435 Sixth Avenue, downtown, 619-702-6478, indigocafeandcatering.com
HOURS: Monday–Friday 7:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Saturday 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Sunday 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $5–$12; salads, $9–$15; entrées, burgers, pizzas, $9–$19; sandwiches, $10–$13; breakfast dishes, $6–$13.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Dinner menu divided between standard San Diego casual fare and New Orleans dishes. Modest wine list, all under $40. Full bar, creative cocktails.
PICK HITS: King’s Cake martini; Cajun Bloody Mary; popcorn shrimp, fried oysters. Best guesses: regular American food.
NEED TO KNOW: Metered street parking (free after 6:00 p.m.), numerous lots all around. (Please note: Review covers Louisiana dishes only. American dishes reviewed September 2009 by “Tin Fork.”) Atmosphere: come as you are, unless your nickname is Filthy McNasty.