New Orleans Creole Cafe

2476 San Diego Avenue (in the Whaley House gardens), Old Town

This is weird. Last year I was sitting right here in this ancient Wild West shack in Old Town, in the selfsame squiggly wrought-iron seat, drooling over English tea and crumpets, waiting on dusk for Anna Whaley's ghost to come out and water the California pepper trees she'd just planted. In 1856. People see her at dusk all the time, they say. Those trees she planted 150 years ago were still growing, gnarly, dripping with curtains of leaves, and it struck me: the atmosphere was pure bayou. N'Awlins.

Cut to this afternoon, fall 2004. I've been showing my friend Mark the spot where Antonio Garra, the last great Indian rebel, died laughing, executed by firing squad. I glance up at the Whaley House and its gardens. "Ain't it just like a scene out of the bayou?" I say. Then I see they have a new sign outside the old English tea place.

"New Orleans Creole Café," it says.

Wow. Never knew I had such a powerful mind. "Got time to try it?" I say. Mark is one of those busy guys. Just back from Ireland. Does video shows for churches, a dozen other things.

He nods. He's on his cell. "No, just with Ed... Ed! Sure, I'll bring you something." His wife.

So we hike up to the porch of this little ol' eatery. Big square false front like what you see in all the cowboy movies. But what's different is the smells wafting out. Sausage, herby smells, garlicky smells, all concentrated in the small space.

"Gentlemen," says this guy. "Welcome to the Swamp House."

"Huh? Sign said 'New Orleans...' "

" 'Swamp House' is what we almost called it."

Turns out this guy's name is Mark, too. He's from the Big Easy, one of the owners. Let's call him Creole Mark, so we know who's who.

Inside is tiny, woody. A brass lantern ("From New Orleans," says Creole Mark); shelves with books like Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau; New Orleans-style chickory coffees; and an old photo on the wall showing a large family. "Mine," says the second gent behind the counter. Humberto. He and Mark are partners in this place. "That photo was taken in Sonora in 1892. Uh, have you decided?"

"We too late for lunch?" says Mark.

"Heavens, no," the other Mark says. "In New Orleans we'd start eating about now, one, two, and go right through till five."

The chef, Donald, brings steamy garlicky oniony roast beef to replenish a chafing dish. Smells so good.

The menu's brief. Cup of gumbo's $4.75. Interesting eight-inch po-boy sandwiches. Roast beef is $7.75; alligator (yes, alligator) sausage is $9.50; hot beef sausage is $8.50; and turkey, avocado, and cheese is $7.25.

Main courses hover around Mr. Hamilton. Shrimp Creole is $9.50, crawfish étouffée is $10.50, chicken and sausage gumbo goes for $9.00, shrimp Caesar salad is $8.50, and shrimp and sausage jambalaya is $8.50.

That's it. Nice and simple. Kind of a stretch for my Mr. Jackson, but we'll make it. "Alligator," Mark says. Dammit, I was going to go for that. So instead I have a shrimp and sausage jambalaya. I get a coffee, and Mark gets a traditional N'Awlins sweet tea ($1.50 each, with refills).

Creole Mark informs us that the alligator meat comes from the tail, mixed in with pork to make the sausage. I pinch a slice. It's kinda like raunchy, herby venison. His big French bread looks crisp. The sausage is hidden in lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles. Creole Mark says he steams the sausages a bit so they regain some of the water lost in the sausage-making process. "We're still learning to operate here," he says. "The whole place is only 300 square feet, so that limits us. But we make it work."

My jambalaya comes in a bowl, with French bread cut into teeny-weeny slices. The sausage is herby, there's a healthy batch of shrimp, the rice is tasty, and there's enough of it. Except I'da liked more bread to sop it all up.

But I can't help wondering: for when I'm really down on my uppers, do they have anything cheaper? "Yes, of course," says Mark. "We can do a short po-boy for $4.00. Or a short po-boy and a cup of gumbo for $7.75. Or red beans and rice, vegetarian for $6.50, or with sausage for $7.50. That comes with lots of rice and seasoning. So you definitely won't go away hungry."

Mark orders up a couple of cups of gumbo to take to his wife. Me, I'm still struggling with my jambalaya. Think I'm gonna have to pack it.

'Course we talk ghosts. That is the Whaley House next door. "I caught a ghost once," says Creole Mark. He brings out a three- by four-foot photo blowup of people eating and drinking and dancing. Blue smoke swirls through them. "See that? A spirit. Caught on camera."


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