Greyze Vieira spends hours and sometimes days smoking pork — the tails, feet, ribs and shoulders — to make feijoada, the rich Brazilian bean stew he grew up eating.
Topped with farofa — toasted cassava flour — and served with stewed collard greens, it is Brazil's most revered dish, symbolic of the country's African and European roots and featured each Saturday evening Brazilian Market Cafe, Vieira's tiny grocery store and restaurant on Williams Boulevard in Kenner.
Serving the most authentic version of his country's food has become so important to Vieira that he returns to Brazil at least once a year to ensure his food "tastes just like it does at home." He even custom-built a machine to dry the beef needed for the stew, because the humidity of southeast Louisiana is too high to achieve the quality he seeks.
"It had to be the best dried meat — like they have in Brazil," Vieira says. "It was a dish people would eat before there were refrigerators because the meat would keep longer if it was salted and cured."
Vieira's restaurant is one of an increasing number of ethnic dining spots and shops on this unglamorous Kenner boulevard, which stretches from the banks of the Mississippi River to the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain. In the past decade, the area has become a hotbed for cuisines from around the world: smaller and more unassuming than their New Orleans counterparts, the mom-and-pop storefronts and restaurants that pepper the busy thoroughfare boast cheap, authentic international foods with a strong Latin influence. It's a lively, entertaining and culturally rich area — well worth the trek for curious diners willing to battle the traffic-clogged street.
For Vieira and others, Williams Boulevard is just as much about the neighborhood and the community atmosphere it sustains as it is about the food. It's a one-stop shop for many immigrants, a place where they can go to a bank, get a haircut, go to a post office and grab a bite — all within blocks of each other.
Part of the strip's expansion — and the surge in Hispanic population in the city — has been attributed to the Central and South American migrant workers who came to the city as part of the cleanup and rebuilding effort following Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods.
In the New Orleans metro area, the Latino population skyrocketed from nearly 60,000 people in 2000 to 103,000 in 2013, something the New Orleans-based data analysis group The Data Center says can be attributed to the labor demand following the storm.
Vieira, who was living in Georgia when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, immediately saw a demand and opportunity for growth. In 2006 he moved his family to Metairie and opened the Brazilian Market & Cafe in a strip mall in the 2400 block of Williams Boulevard.
"We had a couple of thousand Brazilians here working, and there wasn't really a place for them to go," Vieira says. "I opened the store as a place not only to serve food and groceries but also to offer help with documents, job applications and translating."
Even when the rebuilding efforts came to an end and many of the laborers returned home, the city still saw a significant spike in its Hispanic population, most notably in Jefferson Parish, according to the Data Center. Since 2000, the number of Hispanics in Jefferson Parish grew by nearly 26,000 and now make up more than 13 percent of the parish's total population, the center says.
"You now see families that are settling down, whereas earlier, mainly after Katrina, you only saw this predominantly male face of the construction worker," says Sarah Fouts, a doctoral student at Tulane University's Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies. "But within the last 10 years, you see many more children, many more women. There are workers who have come in and helped to rebuild the city and have invested in the city and (they) have established ties and brought their families."
Another popular Brazilian outpost on Williams Boulevard, Churra's Brazilian Grill, serves a variety of grilled meats churrascaria-style as part of a buffet. Like Vieira's shop, Churra's is part grocery store, part sit-down restaurant. The rotisserie is full of charred, fatty pieces of sausage, chicken and steaks, including picanha, the fat cap-topped sirloin. A full salad bar is included in the buffet; a separate, pay-per-pound option also is available.
While the Williams Boulevard corridor often is perceived as a predominantly Hispanic stronghold, the strip is dotted with eateries offering foods from around the world, including several Asian and Middle Eastern cafes and grocery stores.
"It's become a welcome space for populations that continue to be marginalized throughout the city," Fouts says. "There is growing local business support for diverse ethnic populations to open up these restaurants (and) Kenner has (now) kind of become this hub of different ethnicities."
One example: Fatima Cafe. The Palestinian-owned operation next door to Vieira's store opened in late 2013 and has become a popular destination for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Thick hummus comes draped in olive oil, charred kebab and shawarma platters are served with pita and golden, crunchy orbs of falafel are drizzled with tahini.
Like so many of the Williams Boulevard shops, the Asian Gourmet Market is hard to see from the street, tucked into the rear of an aging strip mall on 32nd Street. Little Tokyo owner Yusuke Kawahara opened the market nearly 20 years ago, offering a wide selection of Japanese, Korean, Thai and Chinese staples. Aisles in the store are lined with noodle soups, fermented soybeans, Chinese sausage, preserved duck eggs and bright green Thai eggplants.
Kawahara estimates his shop stocks the largest selection of Japanese products in the metro area, including a variety of obscure produce like yamaimo, a fibrous root called a Japanese mountain potato often used in sushi and tempura dishes. Kawahara suggests himono, a type of dried fish. "It's a dish we usually eat for breakfast or when we finish work and start drinking," he says, pointing to his store's impressive selection of Japanese sake and beer.
There are a number of Chinese restaurants along the Williams Boulevard strip, but Little Chinatown and Imperial Garden serve some of the best options at affordable prices.
Little Chinatown, located in a former Pizza Hut building near 38th Street, serves Chinese American staples — lo mein, fried wontons, kung pao chicken — but also features a decent selection of traditional Chinese dishes, including rice porridge congee. Topped with either fresh seafood or pork with preserved eggs, the creamy rice dish is eaten for breakfast across Asia but is served all day long here. Larger, family-style meals include several meats and seafood dishes that are simmered for hours and served in clay pots. On certain days, a Peking duck special with several sides is served.
At Imperial Garden, the portions are extremely generous and the quality of food is a notch above some of the more Americanized Chinese restaurants in the area. A handwritten menu in Chinese hangs on the wall, informing those able to read the language of the daily specials, most of which are served family-style. A menu in English provides diners with the basic options, but servers usually can point adventurous eaters to one of the featured dishes. The daily vegetable dish often features da dou miao, a fresh, garlicky dish of stir-fried pea shoots.
Perhaps most representative of the shifting demographics on Williams Boulevard are the increasing number of pan-Latino restaurants, many marketing themselves as one cuisine or another while serving a variety of several Central American dishes. Following a surge in Central American immigrants (statistics show they now make up more than 40 percent of the entire Hispanic population in the metro area) the corridor is now home to several Honduran, Salvadoran, Peruvian and Guatemalan restaurants.
Pupuseria Lila's, a new Salvadoran-owned restaurant right off the Interstate 10 Williams Boulevard exit, specializes in Salvadoran pupusas — fried corn pancakes stuffed with meat and cheese — but also sells Honduran baleadas and Mexican enchiladas. "At home, our parents will make us (Salvadoran) food, but there's not a restaurant I know out here that is selling this type of food, so I decided to open one based on our parents' culture," says Alberto Valdez, who opened the restaurant with his brother in April.
The Salvadoran snack pupusas usually include chicharrones, or pork cracklings, but diners can opt for just cheese or beans. A traditional version filled with loroco, a type of flowering herb native to Central America, is believed to have health benefits and packs a strong, slightly bitter flavor.
On the other end of the strip, near the entrance to the Pontchartrain Center, Cuban Restaurant is a Honduran-owned eatery that serves Central American dishes. Elizabeth Sosa opened the restaurant with her sister more than three years ago, serving the traditional Honduran dishes she was raised eating as well as a number of Cuban specialties, including congri, the traditional island rice and bean dish, which Sosa serves with roasted pork and yuca. Sosa's specialties include Cuban steak served with rice and beans; picadillo, ground beef stewed with tomatoes; and an excellent ropa vieja, tender morsels of slow-cooked, shredded beef that practically melt in your mouth.
At Pollos a la Brasa Fiesta on the corner of 39th Street Peruvian-style spit-roasted chicken is the star. The owners are a couple from Mexico City and El Salvador, but there is no arguing with their specialty: The crispy South American-style bird is seasoned with paprika, cumin and lemon and baked on a rotisserie until the skin is dark brown.
"Everything we make ourselves," says Leo Reyes, the owner's son, who commutes from Covington to help his family run the restaurant. "It's Salvadoran, it's Argentinean, it's Peruvian." Other popular dishes include the costillas asadas, Salvadoran grilled beef ribs, and choripan, a spicy Argentinean sausage sandwich.
Juicy, citrus-marinated chicken also is on the menu at the popular Pollo Campero, a bright orange building that sits in the shadow of the Interstate 10 overpass near the corner of Veterans Memorial Boulevard. The Guatemalan fast food chain opened in 2012 and serves chicken (fried or grilled), usually accompanied by beans, yuca fries and rice. Popular with a working crowd, the place gets packed during lunch. The menu features several meal options that also make the franchise popular with families.
Despite the influx of Central American food, traditional Mexican restaurants still are represented in the area. Many restaurateurs formerly operated taco trucks, but following a 2007 ruling from the Jefferson Parish Council that placed parishwide ban on the mobile vendors, those who wanted to remain in the food vending business opened brick-and-mortar restaurants featuring cheap Mexican street food.
Taqueria Mi Rancho — on 39th Street in the same strip mall as Pollos a la Brasas — sells affordable, traditional tacos and Mexican street specialties with not a Tex-Mex dish in sight. Tacos come three to an order and are served on crisp, griddled corn tortillas. The selection features some harder-to-find varieties including crispy tripe and beef tongue versions.
Elote en vaso, which translates roughly to "corn in a cup", is just that: shaved, roasted kernels served in a plastic cup and showered with queso fresco, chili powder, lime juice and a dollop of crema. Other popular items include menudo, the traditional tripe soup (and purported hangover cure) and enormous tortas filled with meat, avocado and cheese.
It would be a shame to pass Chilangos Seafood on a weekend night without stopping for a drink and perhaps a song or two on the karaoke machine. A lively crowd holds court here, downing tequila shots and the restaurant's signature Chilangaritas, a tacky and lethal contraption featuring a frosty bottle of Corona dumped upside down in a giant, icy margarita.
Even without the raucous nighttime antics, the whimsically decorated seafood-centric restaurant is home to some of the freshest raw and cured fish dishes around. The food is a nod to the beachside restaurants and seafood shacks that dot the coastal towns of Mexico, something owner Patricia Yanez says was lacking in the New Orleans area.
"I wanted to do the type of food I love and there wasn't a lot of (Mexican) places doing seafood dishes," Yanez said. "People know tacos, tortillas, tostadas — but they don't really know what Mexican seafood is like."
Briny, plump shrimp are submerged in cocktail sauce and topped with creamy slices of avocado. Yanez's favorite dish and purported hangover remedy, vuelva a la vida ("return to life"), packs thick slices of tilapia ceviche, oysters, shrimp and octopus in bracingly acidic, tangy cocktail sauce topped with pico de gallo.
Saturday evenings are the only times Vieira serves feijoada. It's a special occasion, and those in the know already are there at 5 p.m., lining up for a bowl of the hearty stew while chatting with friends or watching soccer on the dining room television.
In the aftermath of the rebuilding effort, when the majority of day laborers returned to their homelands, Vieira says his business decreased noticeably. But despite the drop, he says he can still feel the importance his food and store hold for his community.
"This place, and so many others on Williams Boulevard, they're all about providing a place for the people to gather, to be together," Vieira says. "The beauty of New Orleans is that the Brazilian food and culture and the New Orleans food and culture are very similar. It's all about getting together and putting love into what you cook."