In this corner, there’s Jamaican-style oxtails over rice and peas, as casual and traditional as you can get. And in the opposite corner, you’ll find an inventive spin on yaka mein, with rice noodles and pork, fresh herbs and an egg to thicken up that broth.
In between, there are po-boys, crawfish étouffée and palm-sized sweet potato pies. Next door, it’s Honduran soul food to the tune of golden pupusas oozing cheese, cool ceviche and a head-turning plate of Mayan fried chicken. Wash any of them down with a cold beer, or a mix of hibiscus tea and lemonade that tastes like a tropical Arnold Palmer.
That range of flavors, traditions and styles is found at one place, though not necessarily under one roof. They are among the offerings from vendors at Roux Carre, the open-air food court in Central City where a collection of small walk-up stands are clustered around the colorful courtyard.
The setting is unconventional, especially for dining in the midst of a New Orleans summer. But it’s also an open and social setting. It was designed that way, with a stage for bands. Since its debut in November, Roux Carre has been hosting special events and community gatherings, and this weekend brings a big one on Saturday, June 25, with the NOLA Caribbean Festival.
“We’re showing the links and connections between the Caribbean and New Orleans, with that idea that New Orleans is the northernmost port of the Caribbean,” said Joel Hitchcock-Tilton, an organizer for the festival.
Previously held at the (now-closed) Freret Street Publiq House, the festival moves to Roux Carre this year with bands in the courtyard and booths spread out around the new complex.
There’s a daylong schedule of bands and DJs representing different Caribbean traditions, from Cuba and the Virgin Islands to New Orleans brass band culture. NOLA Brewing provides the beer. The Roux Carre vendors will serve their regular menus and add island-inspired specials.
One address, many flavors
Modern, market-style food courts and food halls are gaining popularity around the country, sometimes led by chefs, sometimes by developers. Roux Carre has some similarities to this trend, but it was drawn up a bit differently. It’s a project of Good Work Network, a nonprofit that has long been based in Central City and helps minorities and women build new businesses. Roux Carre is designed to help these local entrepreneurs take a step up in the burgeoning business of New Orleans dining.
Those vendors are there everyday, serving their staples and working up new specials.
The flavors are diverse — traditional or original, hearty or bright, light and tropical. They’re also inexpensive and served quickly, which is why even on hot afternoons lately, I’ve found myself walking through the shaded Roux Carre courtyard for something satisfying on the run.
For Honduran flavors, see the Pupusa Lady, a.k.a. Miriam Rodiguez. She once was known as the “ceviche lady” when she prepared chilled seafood specialties for the (since closed) restaurant RioMar. At her own stand, she serves Mayan fried chicken over a bed of plantains with a creamy sauce and pickled onions, plus those pupusas stuffed with cheese or pork or beans, and a shrimp ceviche that can bring you back to the RioMar days. Scallop ceviche and barbecue chicken with tostones and chimichurri join the line up for her festival day menu.
The standing menu at Estralita’s Express lists fried seafood plates and po-boys, which are made on softer, hoagie-style rolls rather than crunchy po-boy loaves. But the best eating I’ve found here is the Creole pot cooking that Estralita Soniat ladles out, like her seafood gumbo and red beans. For the Caribbean Festival, look for shrimp and okra over rice and barbecue ribs and chicken as specials.
Splendid Pig is the husband-and-wife team of Jennifer Sherrod-Blackwell and Brandon Blackwell, and their menu springs from an inventive culinary perspective. “Pork-ka-mein” transforms yakamein, folding more Southeast Asian flavors back into the New Orleans street food standard (crisp-edged hunks of lemongrass braised pork, cilantro, rice noodles), and the sliders are made from crab cake-style patties of crawfish and andouille. They’re preparing some Latin American dishes for Saturday’s festival, including Puerto Rican arroz con gandules (rice with pork and peas).
Clinton Haughton gained a following with his food truck, Johnny’s Jamaican Grill, and now he serves the same traditional flavors of his homeland from Roux Carre, too. Cartons crammed with jerk chicken or oxtails with rice and peas and fried plantain call for two hands to carry, a stack of napkins and a cold drink to temper the island spice.
Students enrolled in the group’s job-readiness programs run the stand, serving sno-balls, aqua frescas (like horchata) and customized quenchers, like the refreshing hibiscus/lemonade combo.
Take them one at a time, and their flavors and styles are each distinctive from each other. Consider them all together in this social outdoor setting and it feels like something different. And for a project out to diversify the faces of New Orleans food, that is precisely the point.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.