2476 San Diego Avenue (in the Whaley House gardens), Old Town
"Come sit here!" Southern hospitality hits San Diego.
Darlene and Steven have just about finished their food, but as soon as they see me come into the courtyard, they toss out the invite.
“We always feel good when we’ve had our fix of Creole food,” says Darlene. They’re from N’Awlins but living here.
So, hey, I sit down, and, like, instantly, we’re old friends.
This is the New Orleans Creole Cafe, a little place set in the ghostly garden of the haunted Whaley House, near El Campo Santo — the old Spanish-Mexican cemetery. I was sauntering past the restaurant, thinking no way I’d be able to afford it. Two or three sets of Beautiful People sat chomping under umbrellas. Zydeco music was playing on the sound system, a waiter dashing about the brick courtyard in a long white starched apron…
Something held me there.
Next thing you know, I’m sitting down with two Beautiful People, Darlene and Steven.
It’s dusk, so if any spirits are gonna come out, this would be the time. Meanwhile, there are plenty of high spirits. “The thing about New Orleans?” says Darlene, when I ask her to nail what the fuss is all about. “Everybody fits. We hug necks. Everyone’s saying ‘How’s your mama’n’em?’ Meaning, ‘How’s your mother and all the family?’ There’s a neighborliness there.”
The bricky Whaley House, with it’s real gas-powered gaslamps, would fit right into the French Quarter. So would the two cottages that are the heart of this eatery. Think one used to be a house of, uh, joy, the other a gun shop. Both were up on stilts, down on the waterfront, before they were saved from demolition and hauled over here. Talk about the Wild Wild West.
This courtyard also makes me think of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. (Remember that book/movie about voodoo, and the strange, stylish southern life in upscale Savannah?) It’s got that old brick paving, bright red and white umbrellas, black metal-mesh tables and chairs with scarlet cushions, long shadows of people and electric green lawns backlit by the setting sun. There’s a garden of luminous purple lavender and — get this — an Angel’s Trumpet tree, with yellow, foot-long, trumpet-shaped flowers dangling like so many ghostly bells. (You want to watch out for those flowers, though. Supposed to be poisonous. Talk about garden of good and evil…)
“We come about once a week,” Steven says. “They really do cook the real thing. Mark and Humberto run it. Mark’s from Louisiana.”
Steven’s finishing up a plate of crawfish étouffée. Smells garlicky delish. Darlene has put away a fried-shrimp platter.
Humberto appears with a menu for me.
I’m looking at prices.
“Not sure I can fly with you guys,” I say.
“Well,” says Humberto, “maybe just study the menu a bit.”
“How much is the crawfish étouffée?” I ask. “Or the fried shrimp?”
“The crawfish étouffée is $19.75,” says Humberto. “The fried-shrimp platter goes for $18.50. But we have plentiful appetizers and po-boy sandwiches. Or” — he leans over confidentially — “just ask for a half-order of one of the entrées. It’s okay. You could get red beans and rice, or jambalaya with sausage for around $6, $7. Or crawfish étouffée for, like, $10.”
That would be a lifesaver.
Still, most of the po-boy sandwiches are $11, $12. Can’t see asking for a half-size there, though I’m tempted by the alligator sausage po-boy. It has “the other white meat, Cajun-style, blended with pork,” for $11.75. I’m about to ask for a half jambalaya, the rice dish with sausage, which would probably run $7–$8, unless you added chicken, or shrimp, or both. Then you’re paying more. But then I spot something in the “starters,” a small bowl of gumbo — “New Orleans’ richest soup, made with a dark roux and savory spices, $6.75.”
All right! We have liftoff! I order that.
Then I see Steven finishing up a bottle of beer. Abita Amber. Seems Abita’s the beer of New Orleans. His amber costs $4.75. In a fit of crazy, I hear myself asking for the Abita Andygator, a 22-ounce bottle of 8 percent beer that’s gonna set me back $8.
Whatever, no regrets. The gumbo has chicken and sausage in it — the “soup” part is based on a roux of the Holy Trinity of N’Awlins cooking: onion, celery, and Bell peppers. The whole lot comes with a flurry of white napkins, a basket of bread with butter, and it’s totally delish and totally enough, and with the last of the sun making the Andygator bubbles sparkle like champagne, its sweet, fruity taste countering the peppery end-taste of the gumbo…man, I’m in heaven.
“It is the true American food,” says Humberto. “A mix of African, Native American, French, Spanish, German, Irish, and Italian traditions.”
Mark the chef comes out to see how we’re doing. “These are my own family’s recipes,” he says. “We’ve been in Louisiana since 1750.”
And the legendary ghosts of the Whaley House? Oh, sure, Mark says, he’s smelled the perfume of a lady called Violet. “And we get cigar smoke in the kitchen — probably Mr. Whaley himself. Or, once, I went across to the Whaley House and saw a chandelier, perfectly still, start wildly swinging. It went on for ten minutes. Another time, when I was coming to open the kitchen, I felt something pushing me back. Five minutes later, police arrived and found an armed man hiding under our veranda right here, with a gun. He probably would have taken me hostage. So, from that, I feel the ghosts are happy that Humberto and I are here.”
It’s getting dark. I stand up. Fork over $15.89. Sniff for perfume. ■
The Place: New Orleans Creole Cafe, 2476 A, San Diego Avenue, Old Town, 619-542-1648
Prices: Crawfish étouffée, $19.75; fried-shrimp platter, $18.50; red beans and rice, $13.50; jambalaya with sausage, $13.75–$18.50 (but you can ask for half-orders); alligator sausage po-boy, $11.75; small bowl of gumbo, $6.75
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Thursday–Sunday; Monday, lunch only, 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; Tuesday–Wednesday, closed
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
Trolleys/Trains: Blue Line, Green Line, Coaster, Amtrak
Nearest bus/trolley/train stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street, Loma Portal/Old Town