A good gumbo can give you different tastes from one spoonful to the next. That’s been the case with the versions I’ve been eating these past few weeks at Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine (7834 Earhart Blvd., 504-509-6287), between the varied mix of sausage and crab, chicken and okra.
Yet the underlying character of this robust, restorative gumbo comes through clear and consistent and, I've been discovering, it links to something deeper than its flavor.
Dunbar’s reopened in early April after a long hiatus. It’s in a new location, and it looks a lot different from the old Dunbar’s that was on Freret Street for nearly 20 years before Hurricane Katrina. But then, sometimes the evocative power of a remembered meal can soar past the setting.
On Friday morning, Celestine "Tina" Dunbar and her family prepped the gumbo, gathered for pr…
Dunbar’s was for many years one of the lingering question marks of Katrina. While some restaurants never reopened, Dunbar’s future was more ambiguous and included a few chapters in different formats, though without a permanent home.
Through it all, the impressions that endured of Dunbar’s were pre-Katrina vintage. That’s what makes digging in to a meal here feel something like unloading a time capsule from that era.
The city’s food scene was different back then. In one sense it was more fixed and predictable, and less dynamic. When you talked food with New Orleans people then, you’d often hear about their old favorites and then their longings for the specialties of other cities and the food trends thriving elsewhere. Today, the restaurant business is buzzing with different ways to answer those cravings.
But when you ate at Dunbar's, there was no doubt that you were in New Orleans.
It was intensely local, kept in business by people who grew up eating the same sort of cooking, joined now and then by visitors adventurous enough to take a cab to its then-woebegone stretch of Freret. Inside, under a low-slung ceiling, you’d find college students and neighborhood regulars stretching their dining dollar on the same food. The bargain red beans and fried chicken in particular qualified as an extra value meal.
The old Dunbar’s felt unchangeable, which back then was how New Orleans felt in many ways too, for better or worse.
In the city’s food realm alone, the pace of change since can make the time before Katrina feel distant, and after more than a decade a place like Dunbar’s became more the subject of reminiscence than anticipation.
Now that it's back, though, the restaurant is a fresh reminder that for all that's new in New Orleans this city's identity as a great food town is still built on its own traditions, and on the way people relate to them personally. If we ever took that for granted before Katrina, we never can now.
That’s why sitting down to meals here has appealed to something beyond my appetite. After a long journey for Dunbar’s, there’s still a connection that carries through the flavors, and gumbo proves an especially good medium. It’s a gumbo back from limbo and it makes this renewed down home joint feel right back at home again.
Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine
7834 Earhart Blvd., 504-509-6287
Breakfast (from 6 a.m.), lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat., brunch Sun. (from 10 a.m.)
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