Review: Old Arabi Eats_lowres

Chuck White and Song Ly serve hanger steak and butternut squash soup at Old Arabi Eats.

While many restaurants describe themselves as a "neighborhood spot," it's a title that has to be earned. If budding restaurateurs need inspiration for how to build their own local haunt, they can look to Old Arabi Eats. The restaurant boasts a diverse, joyous mix of clientele, serving burgers to international college students and hanger steaks to longtime Arabi families. Old Arabi's fusion of new and old, familiar and unexpected both on and off the menu creates a memorable dining experience.

  The charmingly informal decor at Old Arabi Eats is a quirky fusion of Green Acres and the New York Public Library, creating an ambience that's relaxed without being sloppy and erudite without being uppity. Booth seating resembles the slatted wood park benches often found in country diners, and knickknacks — from nutcrackers to Scrabble boards — are charmingly eclectic. A shelf running along the bar is stocked with books suited for literary epicures, with John Updike novels and James Beard's American Cookery standing side-by-side. The mix of music playing in the dining room is eclectic in the best possible way — with Nina Simone deep cuts, Big Star and lost tracks from Mermaid Avenue.

  Some may say its small menu — offering a handful of appetizers and a smattering of entrees — is too limited, but Old Arabi Eats subscribes to an approach new restaurateurs should embrace: serving a few phenomenal dishes is far preferable to serving a smorgasbord of mediocre ones.

  In an area with an ever-raging battle over who makes the best gumbo, it's refreshing to find a spot that serves its cousin: chili. Clusters of ground beef and earthy black beans are enveloped in a thick, charcoal-colored cloud of peppery spice, littered with emerald slivers of jalapeno and a dusting of Cotija cheese. If you've spurned chili in the past, Old Arabi Eats' version is worthy of a new chance. The Caesar salad — a dish often reduced to salad cream dumped over a bowl of romaine — tastes appropriately piscine, with the dressing's anchovy flavor serving as a briny foil to freshly sheared Parmesan. The food is often bold in its simplicity, solid in flavor without any newfangled bells and whistles.

  The pork chop is a mainstay on a menu of consistently rotating items, and for good reason. Calling the chop "thick cut" doesn't do justice to its behemoth size, but the meat retains its juiciness from a long soak in brine. The accompanying sweet potato croquettes are fluffy and creamy, in an unusual presentation that melts into the salty bath of ham hock-laced black-eyed peas. The cheeseburger features gooey Swiss and cheddar cheeses enveloping a dense patty that may require some jaw-unhinging to get a bite. Pan-seared sheepshead is snowy and flaky, with a delicate, fresh lemon grass and tomato broth that wakes up the fish with sweet herbal notes. Pearl onions and spheres of potato roll around the bowl like edible bingo balls, supple and playful.

  The cocktail selection is something of a mixed bag. The most notable drink on the menu is the Mehle, which combines house-cured salted plums and vodka with a fanciful sprig of basil. The LeBeau cocktail has an ingredient list that seems sure of itself, combining rye and local strawberry wine, but the strange bedfellows are overpowered by a heavy dash of bitters. It leaves one wondering if the two alcohols could be harmonious.

  You could beat a trail to St. Bernard Parish for a seafood fix, but Old Arabi Eats is your best bet for a dinner that feels sturdy and accomplished without any unnecessary fine dining fuss.