The after-work routine in Algiers Point sees a lot of levee jogging, stroller pushing and dog walking, and maybe a visit to one of the familiar restaurants or bars that have long served this tight-knit neighborhood.
But a new stop on the Algiers Point dining circuit is serving something different, and changing it up all the time with flavors as diverse as Honduran street food, composed small plates, Korean barbecue and modern Creole brunch.
The venue is 323, named for its address at 323 Verret St., a few blocks from the ferry landing and adjacent to a cute-as-pie playground called Confetti Park. Since starting early this year, 323 has become a den for pop-up dining concepts, with a calendar of different chefs coming through for one-night appearances or ongoing residencies.
In a part of town that has felt little impact from the much-discussed New Orleans restaurant boom, 323 is bringing the creativity and variety of the pop-up dining scene right into the heart of the neighborhood.
“Algiers Point can feel a bit like an island,” said Sarah Kiehle, who manages 323 and lives a few blocks away. “We thought this would be a good way to bring something new and maybe attract more people to come over and visit the neighborhood.”
The old storefront building that 323 occupies was once a restaurant, a casual eatery called Aunt Leni’s, and it was later a record store. Kiehle said when efforts to attract another restaurant tenant drew no takers, the pop-up model emerged as an alternative.
“We have some great restaurants on the Point,” she said, calling out longtime fixtures and the 2014 addition of Appetite Repair Shop, a spot for take-away meals and prepared foods from the chef Pete Vazquez. “But I think a lot of people feel that we could use another sit-down dining option. This way we’re getting more variety with a schedule of different people coming in.”
New flavors from the Old Portage
In June, that schedule includes a weekly Wednesday visit from what has to be the most prolific pop-up in New Orleans: the Old Portage.
Original and contemporary, with flavors well-synched to modern New Orleans cuisine, this concept was started two years ago by chefs Amarys and Jordan Herndon. Back then, she was sous chef at Bayona, he was sous chef at Ralph’s on the Park, and together the couple hosted dinners at restaurants run by their friends in the industry.
From there, the Herndons have built the Old Portage into a full-time endeavor, with a regular weekly schedule further peppered with one-off events. This week, for instance, they have four events booked across town. They left their regular restaurant jobs to develop the Old Portage and have been gaining a following for the distinctive menus they field in less-than-conventional settings.
They’re at the NOLA Brewing Taproom all day on Tuesdays, and on Saturdays they hold a late-night session at the French Quarter bar Black Penny, drawing a crowd that includes many post-shift restaurant workers (see sidebar for details).
“This is the best way we could develop our food without spending a lot of money and we get to reach a lot of people around the city,” Amarys said of the pop-up approach.
With different venues, and different audiences, Jordon said, they’re able to work out different ideas for their food.
“We’re cooks and chefs first and foremost, just trying to figure out the business end as we go,” he said. “We’re trying on all these hats and I think people like that, they get to try different cuisines and concepts.”
“It’s their place for the night”
The Old Portage’s June debut at 323 last week showcased their culinary style and the versatility of the space.
Their menu, with prices from $6 to $12, ran through shrimp remoulade over Creole tomatoes framed by onion rings, fried chicken skin topped with roasted chicken and olives dabbed with crema, a curry-spiced summer vegetable salad, good old-fashioned burgers, and the “preservation plate” with pickles, preserves, pimento cheese and lamb bacon. This week’s menu shares a few staples and works in other flavors.
Many of the patrons visiting last week arrived on foot, and others on bicycle. Some came over from Wednesdays on the Point, the free weekly concert series held along the levee through July 8. Most were totting BYOB wine or beer.
The setting at 323 feels like a family-run restaurant, with long booths and smaller tables made from refurbished woodwork. The building is owned by Robert Palmer and Kristin Palmer, the former New Orleans city councilwoman. Robert crafted many of the furnishings here himself.
Kiehle, the Palmers’ partner for 323, said the idea is to provide pop-ups with a space they can customize themselves.
“I’m here to help, but it’s their place for the night,” she said.
In return, pop-ups pay a percentage of their sales.
Working the pop-up circuit means lots of lugging and hauling and some creative space management, and at 323 visting chefs still face the usual logistical challenges of setting up a kitchen for the night.
But a space dedicated to pop-ups has its advantages. Kiehle said the aim is to give pop-up chefs access to a built-in neighborhood customer base eager to try new flavors and to create an over-the-river destination for the chefs’ established fans.
Thus far, the 323 calendar has been long on variety. In May there was Korean flavor from Koreole and new American cuisine from the PDR. Last weekend alone brought the Black Swan Food Experience with a blend of Creole, Thai and Caribbean cuisines on Saturday night (jerk tofu with cider-braised collards; pecan-crusted plaintain balls stuffed with chevre), while on Sunday morning Dirty Dishes served its take on New Orleans-style brunch (brisket and biscuits; waffles stuffed with hot sausage).
In addition to the Old Portage’s June residency, 323 will also host a pop-up from chef Melissa Araujo called Alma this month. Araujo runs Saveur Catering, and she said Alma is a way to explore her own Honduran heritage. At 323, she’ll serve a street food menu of enchiladas, meat pies and yucca con chicharrón as a user-friendly introduction to her flavors.
“When I travel, I don’t want to go for fine dining first, I want their street food,” Araujo said. “It’s the best way to learn about a food culture.”