What’s a Louisiana restaurant doing in a Ramada in a sterile business district near Montgomery Field? Well, it’s making a lot of pilots happy, and me, too. With Magnolia gone and Bud’s moved up to Tierrasanta (terra incognita to a downtown gal like me), it’s a place to feed my N’awlins jones.
Local-born chef Frankie “The Bull” Terzoli started cooking at his uncle’s restaurant (the Venetian in Point Loma) as a teenager, fell in love with the job, and has since cooked his way around the world, including a few years in Lafayette, Louisiana, the culinary border between Cajun and Creole cuisine, and in New Iberia, next door to Avery Island, home of Tabasco sauce. So he knows the real tastes of this food. An original owner of Bull’s BBQ in the Morena District, he broke from his partners to open the Big Easy on Hillcrest’s “site of doom,” a location that’s been home to a long line of dead restaurants, including the much-missed Better Half. That died, too.
But I’ve had faith in Frankie’s abilities since Bull’s. At Proud Mary’s (where he can relax, sort of, as a salaried restaurant manager and chef), he’s keeping the faith. He’s honed his Louisiana cooking since the Big Easy days, although his insanely delicious “foie gras crêpe suzette” isn’t on the menu here. It’s not the sort of thing pilots and military guys would likely order, and they’re the backbone patrons of the restaurant.
The decor is an odd mishmash, with three large Mardi Gras oil paintings by the hotel owner’s wife, photos of the red-leather-boothed olden days (there are now plain wooden tables and unpadded chairs), huge flat-screen TVs (muted the night I was there — whew!), plus a festively lighted bar. Nashville-style Muzak plays on the sound system — Frankie prefers other genres (e.g., smooth jazz) but the patrons demand it. When he’s not stuck to the stove, he comes out to schmooze with the patrons.
Lynne, Ben, Fred, and I chose a six-top, knowing we’d be ordering more than a four-top could hold. From the appetizer list, we centered on Louisiana’s holy trinity of cooked dishes: jambalaya, filé gumbo, and red beans and rice. Portions are ginormous. Any of these would be a full meal, and every Tuesday here is “fat Tuesday,” with all appetizers just $5 each.
The jambalaya (much improved from the Big Easy version; Frankie has hit the cookbooks) was a wow, with chicken, andouille, and shrimp in a just-fiery-enough, just-wet-enough tomato-based sauce permeating long-grain rice of a luscious, firm-soft texture from cooking in the sauce. “Now, this is rice I really like,” said Ben-the-stew, who flies the Asia routes. “I’m bone-tired of Asia’s plain white rice.”
In NOLA, red beans and rice is the Monday-night washday miracle, since the beans can simmer for half a day while mama’s at the washateria. It’s also the classic entrée at local Mardi Gras open-house parties. It’s typically made with fatty smoked pork, like ham hocks, thrown in with the beans, and sausages tossed in near the end of cooking. Here, it’s a tidy presentation of beans over rice with sliced andouille circling the plate. The menu calls it “dirty rice” but it isn’t — “dirty” means chopped, sautéed chicken hearts and gizzards, or for lazy cooks, ground meat. This rice was chaste. The beans weren’t smoky or fatty, but soulful, flavorful, and the andouille — made-to-order for Frankie by a local Portuguese sausage company — was convincing, with the right spices in right amounts, and a bare modicum of fat.
Looking at the walnut-brown chicken filé gumbo, Fred said, “Wow, how long did it take to cook the roux for that?” Frankie later revealed that, since he couldn’t get his inherited kitchen staff to stand over the stove stirring a roux nonstop for 45 minutes, he’d discovered he could toast the flour in the oven until browned, then finish it off by stirring on the stovetop with oil until it reached the chestnut color he likes. The roasting creates a faint smoky flavor. Filé powder added near the end thickens the broth, although I can’t taste the sassafras. Rice is served on the side in traditional fashion; when you add it to taste, the soup comes alive. Better yet, it comes with irresistible cornbread, slightly sweet, moist, dotted with baked corn kernels; not authentic dry Southern cornbread, as Fred pointed out, but oh, so much better.
In a fourth appetizer of shrimp and watermelon ceviche, the already cooked shrimp exposed to the citrus dressing firmed up to rubber. And the entrées, as usual, fell short of the starters. The crowd-pleaser was the “Memphis-smoked” spare ribs, oven-steamed in coffee before being smoked for a while, then slathered with a sweet barbecue sauce and grilled to heat. (Authentic Memphis ribs are dry-rubbed with seasonings, deep-smoked overnight, barely sauced.) Due to the moist-heat pre-cooking, these had no smoke flavor but were fall-apart tender. “In Southern California, nobody wants to see that ‘smoke ring’ of meats smoked all the way. People say it tastes like an ashtray,” Frankie told me later.
A Californified oyster po’ boy was served on a soft, large frankfurter roll, too mushy to assemble and pick up with all the lettuce-tomato-onion salad heaped atop the oysters. The bun could be okay with the pulled-pork sandwich (traditionally served on a burger bun) but useless here; a kaiser roll might make a better substitute for Nawlins’ crisp-crusted, soft-inside French bread. Fred, with Southern relatives, didn’t appreciate the side of fried green tomatoes — too much breading, too-bland tomato, for his taste. Lightly sautéed collards on the side were crisp, certainly not Southern.
Crawfish étouffé (it’s on the plastic-sheathed menu, not the paper menus at the table, which ran out of space to list it) is a classic tomatoey restaurant rendition with less cayenne and garlic than my favorite home recipe from Cajun music heroes Mark and Ann Savoy. As for Steak Diane, the spicy sauce is interesting and new, but the meat was the toughest filet mignon I’ve ever attempted to chaw. The tall rectangular cake of mushroom grits was dense and bland. I’ve just started to love grits. Halve the height, lighten it up, and seduce me with more butter or cheese, Frankie cher!