This House Believes

Fresh Snow Crab from Kjeans- The perfect picnic lunch!

I dropped in to Kjean’s a few weeks ago to conduct a follow up interview with owners Kenan and Jamie.  When I had visited Kenan at the start of our project he told me about all the changes that were coming.  He told me that Veal Parmesan was being added to the menu and that he was on his way out the door to go and pick up daiquiri machines.  These were his new weapons in the crusade to battle against the affects of the BP spew.  I was eager to see how he was doing, as well as a little apprehensive about discovering who had thus far been winning the battle.

When I walked in the door Jamie was taking orders behind the counter.  There were customers in line waiting to be helped.  I could hear Kenan in the back shuffling fish.  There wasn’t a daiquiri machine in sight.  In short, nothing had changed.  Then I noticed the menu on the wall.  When I had first visited Kjean’s the menu had been unmarked, and now it stood as a testament to the affects of the spew.

Everything you see marked up contains shrimp which are no longer caught close by. Everything marked out contains oysters which Kenan can no longer obtain locally.

At first the prices had been marked up.  Everything that included either shrimp or oysters was raised in price by several dollars.  The menu looked like the sort that had been posted thirty years ago by chintzy owners who had Sharpie adjusted the prices as decades wore on.  The problem is, Kenan had had these new menus created just several weeks before the spew.  The story of how things went was most clear when I glanced at the oyster platter.   First it had gone from $13.95 to $16.00, then it disappeared entirely as Kenan’s oyster supplier closed his doors in early July.The Oyster Platter is currently unavailable

I asked Jamie where the daiquiri machines were.  She sort of rolled her eyes and smiled and told me that Kenan does things on his own time.  I was a little disappointed, but then I realized that they didn’t seem to need them.  Business was strong, customers were in line, and Kenan was so busy that he couldn’t come out for an interview.

As I looked around the seafood house (it really isn’t a sit down sort of place) I noticed the counters that Kenan had shellacked with Saint’s memorabilia. When the Saints had won the SuperBowl, changing decor had been a priority.  It was nice to walk the counter and see the photos of our city’s most recent victory.

I also noticed that Kenan and Jamie have a sign hanging over the kitchen door that says “This House Believes”. As a New Orleans establishment that is still battling on, both post Katrina and post BP, this sign takes on a whole new meaning.  This establishment obviously believes in the continued success of New Orleans as a whole and as I see happy customers leaving with bags of crawfish to take home for parties, I can’t help but think that the spirit of believing is reciprocal.

The sign hanging over the kitchen at Kjean's

“This is NOT a Cannoli” (But What Is?)

The very first day I went in to Brocato’s I was overwhelmed by the sheer variety of confectionary delights.  Some things were familiar to me as things that are distinctly Italian even though I myself may not have had them before.  There were jars of candy coated Almonds, a variety of biscotti to choose from, spumoni, and rum cake. Then there were the cannoli.  Or at least I thought they were cannoli.  However, they were listed as cannocini with a small sign below, distinctly stating: “This is NOT a cannoli.”  I was intrigued, because knowing what they were not did not help me in figuring out precisely what they were.  They appeared to be Italian cream filled cylinders, and I was failing to distinguish the difference.

My confusion regarding Brocato’s wares involved their frozen treats as well.  During our interview, Arthur Brocato repeatedly referred to his frozen concoctions as “Italian ice creams”.  I had considered them to be gelatos and ices.  When I looked to their website for clarification, I noticed the following: “For the true connoisseur, Brocato’s offers a complete selection of “gelato” (Italian for ice cream) featuring all natural imported Sicilian flavorings from chestnut to moka to amaretto.”

So, according to Brocato’s, “gelato” is Italian for “ice cream”.  Not being convinced that there wasn’t a bigger difference, I scoured the internet, and after looking through numerous Chowhound posts, Wikipedia postings, answers and endless other streams of running commentary on the subject, I gathered that the general consensus is that gelato actually contains milk and cream as opposed to just cream and that the fact that is seems to be superbly creamy in comparison to its ice cream counterpart has more to do with the fact that it is mixed slowly enough that air doesn’t whip in, allowing for a much denser creamy texture.  As for the cannocini: when I finally gathered the determination to display my ignorance of Italian desserts and ask for the difference, I was told that they are filled with sweetened custard filling rather than sweetened ricotta as the cannoli are.

I bring up the cannoli and gelato examples not because I wish to nitpick Brocato’s selections and word choices but because I think they serve as excellent examples when it comes to the endless debate on authenticity. If Brocato’s chooses not to call its Italian Ice Cream “gelato”, does it make it any less authentic? Furthermore, if one is to consider the new twists to old tradition, such as spumoni cheesecake, then where does authenticity come in to question? Are we to assume that if it isn’t traditional it isn’t authentic?  If that’s the case, then nothing new or innovative would ever fit the definition, we’d be stuck in time forever, slaves to authenticity.

Several people have asked me how I feel about Juan’s Flying Burrito (another of my research subjects on the row) when compared with El Rinconcito or Fiesta Latina.  In other words, is Juan’s “authentic” Mexican food?  I would say that it all depends on the definition of authenticity.  I come from a place where a burrito is food to be held, lunch packed to go.  At Juan’s the burritos barely fit on the plate and they are often drenched in sauces.  Grasping one would be highly inadvisable. Does it make them something other than a burrito? Not if Juan’s says that’s what they are.

Reaching Out

Many of the restaurant owners on our “row” do not see themselves in a common light. They are owners from all walks of life. Most do not belong to neighborhood organizations due to cost constraints.  Although they are neighbors, they are different as different can be.  Indeed, it is difficult to even find a consensus as to whether or not they see themselves as a cohesive “community” of restaurants at all or merely a happenstance group brought about by fortuitous zoning.

And yet, whether they realize it or not, they all have something in common.  Each of these establishments are bringing outsiders in.  People from outside of the immediate Mid City area have connections with this row of establishments.

Some ties are obvious. Brocato’s is an institution.  So is Mandina’s. These are the kind of establishments that one brings out-of-towners to for a taste of New Orleans.

Other connections are more nuanced.  For example, many patrons of Venezia now visit when they make it back to New Orleans, a place they left when Katrina displaced them.  Something about Venezia makes it worth coming back to; perhaps a desire to relive the nostalgia of late night pizza parties with college buddies back in the fifties and sixties.  The owner tells us that these days some people have been known to make the trek across the lake on weekends to stop in for a visit.

Then there are the ties that few will ever notice.  As it turns out, Juan’s Flying Burrito gets all of its lighting from two local artists, Mark Kirk and Heather Macfarlane.  Furthermore, they provide a link to the artist’s website on their own site to help promote their business.

Light made by Mark Kirk and Heather Macfarlane

The owner of Doson’s Noodle House gets many of his ingredients from the Vietnamese community.  Brocato’s goods can be found at restaurants and grocery stores throughout the city.  In fact, they will even pack their gelato in dry-ice and send to those who yearn for a taste of Italy-or New Orleans. (Check out their site for mail-order Spumoni!)

You don't have to be in New Orleans for a taste of Brocato's!

It would seem that our “restaurant row” is not just a place for Mid City locals, but rather the epicenter of a far reaching web.  If you are one of the many who makes the drive across town (or from out of town!) to frequent a favorite hangout on the “row”, please share your story with us.  We’d like to know what keeps you coming back.

Carrollton Avenue’s Transformation

This is a photo of Carrollton's 3600 block circa 1950. Although it was taken several blocks from our research area, it is important to note that the same fate has befallen this strip of businesses as has happened on "the row" - they have since been replaced by 5 Happiness Restaurant.

When I explained to Arthur that part of my project was to map out a history of the neighborhood, he launched into a vividly detailed description of what “the row” looked like when the Brocato family moved there in 1979. The only other food establishments on the street at the time were Venezia (still standing) and Hazel’s Po-Boy’s, an establishment since closed. The Red Door Bar was also around back then, and according to Arthur its clientele isn’t as rough and tumble as it was in the old days. Everything changes with time. The rest of the street was filled with businesses that were functional for the neighborhood. On one side, (Brocato’s side) stood Fashion Forward, David’s Beauty Salon, Johnson’s Hardware, and a used car dealership where Kjean’s now stands. Across the street was Ace’s Pool hall (now Wit’s Inn), a washing machine repair center (now Doson’s), and a sign painting business. A bit further down the road towards City Park was Chaubaud’s Marine, Music City, and a tire repair shop. There was also a small market nearby where neighborhood residents could grocery shop. The building where Brocato’s itself now resides was three different bakeries beginning in the 1920’s.

It seems as though this strip of Carrollton was a sort of one-stop-shop for daily errands. When I asked Arthur what he thought of the neighborhood now in comparison to what it was back then, he told me that things have definitely changed, but he isn’t sure whether or not they’ve changed for the better. He explained that as far as a restaurant boom is concerned, he felt that “the row” had reached it’s peak right before Katrina. Restaurants in general on Carrollton Avenue have come back strong post-K, but Arthur isn’t sure that that’s best for everybody’s business. On one hand, he reasons, variety can bring people to the neighborhood more regularly to eat, but on the other, there might reach a point where there are too many establishments vying for a set group of clientele. Judging by the line out the door on a summer Friday night, I don’t think that Brocato’s has much to worry about. Nevertheless, it is fun to reminisce about spending a productive afternoon in the 70‘s on Carrollton where one could park the car and walk to get one’s hair cut, pick out a new outfit, break for a classic Italian lunch and possibly wind down by playing some pool.

Arthur’s mixed feelings about the numerous food establishments got me wondering what other residents of New Orleans and specifically Mid City think about the changes to the area. If you can recall what Carrollton was like prior to its present incarnation, please feel free to chime in and comment! I’d love to hear what pieces of history our residents have to offer.

This is the intersection of Carrollton and Esplanade circa 1950. Bayou St. John is to the viewer's left and City Park is to the right.

Photos: Upper- courtesy of Lower: courtesy of

Flashback: 1905 “You got what you got”

Last week I met with Arthur Brocato, grandson of Angelo Brocato, who was the founder of now famous Brocato’s Italian Ice Cream and Pastry. Because Brocato’s is truly a New Orleans institution, I wanted to make sure that I was well informed on the history of the establishment before I met with Arthur. The Brocato family is aware that a glimpse of their history is sought after by many- over the years the family has been interviewed for food books and magazines, the Gambit, the Times Picayune and even curious college students on reporting assignments. The family has done an excellent job of providing a detailed account on their website complete with photographs to keep those who are curious in the know . When I met with Arthur, I had already done my research and I knew about the establishment’s history so I was looking for something more. Arthur provided me with a very detailed account of what “the row” looked like when they moved there in 1979 from the French Quarter (The account he gave is a story in itself which will have to wait for a another blog entry). Then, as Arthur warmed up to reminiscing, our conversation turned to the way Brocato’s used to be. He told me that when they moved to the Carrollton location his family lived in the back. He pointed out where his kitchen stove once sat before they moved out and expanded retail space. He then moved further back in time to tell me about how things were for his grandfather in 1905 when he opened his business on the 500 block of Ursuline Street ( not to be confused with the location founded in 1921 at 615-617 Ursuline which is now Croissant D’Or).

Sidewalk in front of the 1921 location at 617 Ursuline

And Of Course...The Ladies Entrance at 615 Ursuline

He explained to me that the choice to make both gelato and pastries was one of necessity due to the extreme heat and lack of air conditioning in the French Quarter in 1905. Ices and gelato could be made from roughly Easter to October using copper freezers that were created specifically for the task. The freezer compartments needed to be copper because rock salt used in the ice cream production would react and eat through any other metal. Angelo started making his frozen treats early in the day and made one or two flavors daily. These he sold directly out of the freezers until they were sold out; nothing could be stored. If a customer came in for gelato, they got whatever Angelo had mixed that morning. “You got what you got”, says Arthur. Cannoli, on the other hand, were a wintertime treat. Angelo had no way to refrigerate the creamy cannoli filling which simply could not withstand the heat of a New Orleans summer. Arthur tells me that his grandfather’s first oven was coal burning and had no thermostat. Arthur demonstrates sticking his hand inside the oven and waving it around to test for temperature, a method he tells me he learned early on, working with his grandfather. Listening to the difficulties of running an Italian ice cream parlor in 1905 makes me appreciate the bustling establishment that Brocato’s has turned into. It hardly seems worth it to preserve fruit, cream and ice in extreme heat with no refrigeration, and yet Angelo never gave it up. Today, thanks to the modern wonders of air-conditioning and refrigeration, one can choose from an endless array of gelato and ice flavors, cookies, pastries, and cakes, all thanks to the vision of a Sicilian immigrant who wanted to replicate a little piece of Italy in the new place he called home.

One of five cases filled with treats at today's Carrollton location.

Spumoni Cheesecake! A great reinterpretation of a classic

Here is a short video of Brocato’s selections on July 21, 2010:

Against the Tide

When I applied for a position on the Restaurant Recovery Team I knew that a great deal of my research would be centered on the affects that Hurricane Katrina had on the local businesses that I would be studying.  I guess you could say I was prepared for a little bit of “distanced heartache” in my interviews, after all, it has been five years and those we are interviewing have all made it back to the row.  Angelo Brocato’s even has a little bronze plate on the door as you exit, reminding customers of where the waterline was when the floods came.  Although this reminder of disaster might seem a bit morose to those who aren’t from here, I see it as a “Hey look, we made it!” sort of thing, an attitude that this city has got down-pat.

Knowing of the resilience of New Orleanians, I was excited to meet with Kenan and Jamie, husband and wife owner and operators of Kjean Seafood at 236 N. Carrollton Avenue.  I had known prior to my initial interview that the building had needed to be entirely rebuilt post- Katrina, and I was eager to hear a “post-K success story” first hand.  What I learned from Kenan was heartbreaking to hear because although he did rebuild after the storm, he is now undergoing an even bigger struggle in dealing with the BP oil spill.

Kenan explained a bit about the history of Kjean’s.  The name, he says, is a combination of his own and his sister Jean’s, who was the initial co-founder of the establishment.  They chose this catchy combo not only because it was a clever way to lend credit to both, but, as Kenan explains, because the state has trademarked the traditional spelling of “Cajun”, and its usage is subject to a $5,000 annual tax.

In any case, Kjean Seafood was quite successful- it had opened in 1992, and two months before Katrina, the business and building were entirely renovated and paid off.  Then the water came.  Kenan tells me there was six feet of water, and considering that it was making a filthy gumbo out of his refrigeration rooms for several weeks, no one was willing to try and clean up the mess.  They made the decision to tear down and rebuild entirely.  When I asked Kenan why he decided to rebuild he told me that after being his own boss as a fisherman since the age of fourteen, he just couldn’t see himself working for someone else.  Makes sense to me.

This time, things are different.  Kjean’s business has been terribly affected by the BP spill. Customers walk in and ask, “Where are those oysters from? Those shrimp oily?”

Kenan makes light with his regulars and quips, “Naw, Baby, we scrub ‘em real good with Dawn first and they’re good as new”.  Never the less, although his seafood is perfectly safe and comes from unaffected areas, such as the deep gulf where no oil has reached, business is suffering.

Kenan’s got a plan. I tell him I’m writing about the local businesses and he tells me, “I’m gettin’ Daiquiri Machines tomorrow, could you please make sure and put that in there? Don’t forget to write that down.”

Daiquiri machines and a revised menu are in the works. Instead of just seafood, customers will soon be able to order icy cool refreshments, meatball po’boys and veal parmesan. For now, things like oysters will be off the menu as Kenan’s supplier was hauling in his last day’s catch on the day we met last week.

Although Kjean Seafood has once again met adversity, I hope that with the understanding and support of local residents and the resilient attitude of the owners, we are looking at yet another “against all odds” success story in the making.