While family-owned and -operated joints seem increasingly rare, there are places out there not just keeping their family's restaurant legacy alive but starting new traditions. The Munch Factory, which moved into its current space on Elysian Fields Avenue in 2012, is a testament to the fact that the best family-operated eateries can make dinner seem like a trip to the neighbor's house — if your neighbor happened to be a talented chef.
Dining at The Munch Factory feels like plopping down in a family's living room in the middle of a meal, and some diners may even get the urge to kick off their shoes and start hobnobbing with guests at other tables. On a given night, you might find a newborn being passed around between servers and family members, or a toddler (the owners' son) playing with his trucks at a table by the entrance. If a game is on, the dining room's large-screen TVs are sure to be tuned in. What The Munch Factory lacks in formality, it makes up for in warm atmosphere that percolates from the highly attentive service to the meals themselves.
The menu is dominated by comfort food that runs the gamut from snack favorites to heavy-hitting dishes that can conjure nostalgic family memories.
Portion sizes are very generous, and many side items could be meals unto themselves. "Elysian peels" are oval-shaped potato slices that fall somewhere between potato wedges and steak fries in density. The peels' texture and well-seasoned, crispy exterior — strewn with a welcome bite of shaved Parmesan — put other thick-cut fries to shame. Potato croquettes are another (slightly more elegant) standout, combining tasso, mashed potatoes, chives and Gouda cheese into delightful, deep-fried globes of smoky, salty bliss.
Diners can indulge in elevated game-day fare — nachos, potato skins and "bayou" fries covered in gravy — but first timers should try the restaurant's thoughtful renderings of classic New Orleans dishes. Buffalo oysters are daintily fried and arrive with rich, buttery Buffalo sauce that supports the subtle, ocean flavors of the oysters instead of overpowering them with heat. Shell-on shrimp are sauteed in a russet-colored roux, seasoned with a heavy glug of vinegary Worcestershire sauce and served atop a bed of herb-mottled grits. The grits, and accompanying crostini-sized bites of garlic toast, are perfect for mopping up leftover sauce.
The macaroni and cheese deserves a moment of reverent silence and is among the best in the city. When I took my first bite, I muttered "Mercy!" under my breath (which was slightly more audible than I intended and set off a ripple of giggles among the staff). Prepared "New Orleans" style as a miniature casserole with wiggly spaghetti noodles and a creamy mixture of cheeses — including Gruyere and cheddar — the dish is topped with a thin sprinkle of breadcrumbs that serves as a crunchy foil to the velvety dish.
The fines herbes chicken is another house favorite, with two sauteed chicken leg quarters doused in thick, herbal cream sauce that resembles a down-home beurre blanc. Ribs are fork tender and slathered in tangy, burgundy barbecue sauce with satisfying garlicky flavor.
One unfortunate misstep is Aunt Erma's Hawaiian tuna salad, which brings together a solid roster of ingredients — perfectly pink seared tuna steak, silky avocado, sweet-and-sour Hawaiian dressing — but the components sit on a bed of icy, uninspired Romaine lettuce. The salad would be a hit with more delicate greens.
The drinks menu focuses largely on cocktail hour and brunch favorites, each doctored with the "Munch" name: Munchtini and Muncharita. The Munch Punch is a fruity rum concoction that's sweet and thick, with an attractive coral color and a float of orange-hued mango juice that feels worthy of sipping on a white sand beach.
The familial nature of The Munch Factory is a major component in its success, and it's not hard to imagine (or hope) that the children growing up in the restaurant will carry on their family's rare, special tradition.