There’s gumbo in the pot whenever the Tremé restaurant Li’l Dizzy's Café is open, and that includes breakfast. After all, gumbo is the central dish of a restaurant that proprietor Wayne Baquet proudly describes as Creole soul. 

At lunch, customers serve themselves gumbo from the buffet, which gives a firsthand look at what makes it so distinctive. No two ladles pulled from this gumbo will be the same, as each dunk brings up a different mix of ham hunks and sweet shrimp, hot sausage made in house and quartered crabs, their claws intact but the essence steeped into the earthy dark roux.

Behind all that flavor, there’s also a family story, and that is a common bond Li’l Dizzy’s shares with others around the city’s circuit of black-owned Creole restaurants.

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The Creole gumbo and trout Baquet with crabmeat at L'il Dizzy's Cafe in New Orleans.

“This is the food you’d find at our homes,” said Baquet, whose family has presided over many New Orleans restaurants since opening their first in 1947. “It’s the way my mother cooked, the way my mother-in-law cooked, and they got it from their mothers, our grandmothers.

“People have changed their recipes over the years. Not everything you see that’s called gumbo actually tastes like gumbo now. But these recipes come from our family. That’s what drives me.”

The annual Essence Music Festival rolls into town this week as a celebration of African-American culture. Every day around New Orleans, one intensely local part of that culture is served up at restaurants that draw from the tradition known alternately as Creole soul or black Creole.

In a dining scene that is changing swiftly, these restaurants remain resiliently of New Orleans, serving flavors stitched into the city’s identity. Even the next-generation renditions tapping modern food trends and different formats still serve food infused with a sense of place. A big reason why goes back to family ties.

Foundational flavors

Li’l Dizzy’s is part of a triangle of well-known black Creole restaurants in this part of New Orleans. A mile away is the landmark Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, where the indomitable matriarch Leah Chase shakes hands and shares stories with guests in her elegant dining room and strictly enforces quality control in her kitchen, forever tasting and testing and chiding.

Just around the corner from Dooky Chase’s sits Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a onetime neighborhood find that is now on the map for visitors. There is usually a line of them standing outside its clapboard flank, waiting for a plate of shattering-crisp fried chicken or smothered veal with butter beans.

Both are multigenerational family restaurants, and the Chase family has expanded with Dook’s Place, a Creole restaurant within the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (if your flight goes through concourse B, build some time into the travel itinerary for a meal; remember B, for bowl of gumbo).

Elsewhere around the city, the purveyors of Creole soul have been growing and evolving, and the families behind them bring different styles to the foundational flavors of New Orleans cooking.

At Sassafras in Gentilly, the ambiance of a standard-issue strip mall restaurant falls away as the Creole flavors stack up, with smothered okra, liver and onions and a deep dark, extra spicy gumbo with an optional side of potato salad, reflecting a sub-niche in gumbo variations. At Two Sisters ‘N Da East, in a converted Pizza Hut on Chef Menteur Highway, the smothered turkey wings, beans and greens, and weekend gumbo join a full-throttle soul food catalog of neck bones, ham hocks and (on Thursdays) chitterlings.

Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine, a stalwart of pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, finally opened its own location this spring on the edge of Gert Town after years of itinerant limbo. Celestine “Tina” Dunbar credits her father with teaching her to cook. After years of cooking for her own seven children, she parlayed the experience into her first homespun restaurant back in the 1980s. Since the reopening, she’s once again serving the red beans and fried chicken, candied yams, and mustard greens with turkey necks that sustained Dunbar’s regulars through the years.

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Dunbar's Creole Cuisine serves its red beans and rice with fried chicken and cornbread.

In Mid-City, Neyow's Creole Café has been thriving in a part of town better known for its cluster of Creole Italian restaurants. But Neyow's has always stood out for the Creole soul worked into dishes like stuffed cabbage and smothered pork chops.

“Whatever my grandmother cooked, that’s what I cook,” said proprietress Tonya Dubuclet, who runs Neyow’s with her husband, Timothy. “That’s what started it all.”

Late last year, the restaurant relocated to a new building just next door that is vastly more accommodating than its original digs, with a stone-lined patio, an outdoor bar and a glassed-in cooking station by the bar devoted to char-grilled oysters, a major draw here. Twice the size of the original Neyow’s, the expanded restaurant is still packed to capacity on most days.

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The new location of Neyow's Creole Café was built from the ground up in Mid-City and opened in November 2016.

To understand why these Creole flavors inspire such a devoted following, New Orleans chef Kevin Belton suggests looking at how the feelings around this food sank in.

“It’s not just the food and the ingredients; it’s why you’re cooking it,” said Belton, host of the public television series “New Orleans Cooking” and resident chef for WWL-TV. “This is grandma’s cooking. A lot of people might not have had a lot of money, but they had a lot of love to share. That’s how you shared some of yourself — you put it in the pot. That’s what makes it comfort food, and that’s why people come back to it.”

Refreshing the ranks

Jordan Ruiz went to culinary school in New York, but even while he studied the classics, his teachers would ask him about the cooking from his hometown.

“They seemed excited to have someone from New Orleans there,” Ruiz said. “They had gumbo recipes, but, I mean, it just wasn’t the same.”

Back home, he and his wife, Alexis, eventually developed the Munch Factory, a restaurant where the dishes range broadly through bistro fare (chicken with sauce fines herbes) to gastropub grub (tempura-fried salmon bites). The basis, though, is Creole flavor, which runs through the shrimp remoulade and crabcakes and, of course, shows through clearly in the house gumbo.

“That’s the family recipe right there,” Riuz said. “It’s old school, and there’s no changing that.”

That family connection to food keeps cropping up as the next generation makes its mark. Over the Industrial Canal and downriver in Holy Cross, Tia Henry, her husband Fred Henry and his sister Keisha Henry opened Café Dauphine in 2012. They had no restaurant experience between them, but they could draw on a deep-running tradition of family cooking.

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Tia Henry shows the Lizardi egg rolls and fried stuffed bell peppers at her restaurant Café Dauphine in the Lower 9th Ward.

“I know what I love and I know what kind of food the people around me love,” said Tia Henry. “It’s those indigenous New Orleans flavors. You want to taste the dimensions of flavor, the stuff that when you eat it, you feel good because you can’t think of anything else but what you’re eating.”

The Creole gumbo at Café Dauphine cuts the classic profile, with a thin roux teeming with meat and seafood. The pecan rum sauce over the bread pudding is so strong it could have been mixed at the bar. Around the menu, though, Henry has added dishes that tweak Creole tradition. Next to the familiar stuffed bell peppers, for instance, she also serves a deep-fried version filled with crab and shrimp dressing (it’s one of the dishes Café Dauphine will serve as a food vendor at the convention center during Essence programming this week).

“We all start with the same seasoning, the spices, the trinity, the Creole approach,” said Henry. “But what’s great about New Orleans is how everyone does it in their own way.”

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The red bean chili dog with fried chicken is part of the Diva Dawg menu, served from its mobile food truck and its stand at the Roux Carre food court in New Orleans.

The way that Ericka Lassair has found in the food world draws on more modern modes. After opening and closing a conventional restaurant, she has found more success with her Diva Dawg food truck and a walk-up stand at the Roux Carre food court (she’s also one of the featured chefs at Essence this year, presenting on the Essence Eats stage).

Her signature dish at Diva Dawg is essentially a gourmet hot dog wedded to an order of red beans with fried chicken, with chunks of chicken and red bean chili covering the link. She spins pralines into milkshakes, turns crawfish étouffée into a nacho topping and presses a patty melt together with a cheesy crabmeat dip.

Still, what propels Diva Dawg and these mashup creations are Lassair’s own New Orleans roots.

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Ericka Lassair runs the Diva Dawg food truck, a gourmet hot dog spot with Creole toppings.

“I wouldn’t be cooking professionally if not for the people around me,” Lassair said. “That connection is very, very important to me. I have to appeal to people like my mother and aunt and family, who are New Orleans people. They rarely venture outside traditional New Orleans food. I have to please their palates first, then I can build it from there.”

Even the more traditional purveyors of Creole soul find ways to fold in new ideas. For instance, back at Li’l Dizzy’s, Baquet has concocted a breakfast po-boy by combining the ingredients for jambalaya but replacing the rice with eggs. It resembles a seafood omelet, and it’s tucked into a length of crisp French bread, matted with melted cheese.

At the end of the day, though, Baquet makes no bones about his allegiance to the classic flavors of the Creole kitchen.

“If my last meal was red beans and rice and hot sausage, our hot sausage, and French bread, I’d go out a happy man. That would be fine,” Baquet said.

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Café Dauphine

5229 Dauphine St., (504) 309-6391

Diva Dawg (at Roux Carre food court)

2000 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., (504) 533-4825

Dooky Chase’s Restaurant

2301 Orleans Ave., (504) 821-0535

Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine

7834 Earhart Blvd., (504) 509-6287

Li’l Dizzy’s Café

1500 Esplanade Ave., (504) 569-8997

The Munch Factory

1901 Sophie Wright Place, (504) 324-5372

Neyow’s Creole Café

3332 Bienville St., (504) 827-5474

Sassafras

2501 Leon C. Simon Blvd., (504) 288-3939

Two Sisters N Da East

9901 Chef Menteur Highway, (504) 242-0469

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.