When a popular restaurant relocates, you can count on some upsides and downsides. It's no different with the case of the Munch Factory (1901 Sophie Wright Pl., 504-324-5372), which served its last meal in Gentilly on Christmas Eve and reopened this week in the Lower Garden District.
The upside first: the Lower Garden District has a new spot for legit gumbo and creatively wrought casual Creole cooking. The downside is that Gentilly lost one of its precious few restaurants.
There’s more behind the move than a change of address, however. It’s the next step in the evolution of an eatery that's become a next-generation version of the New Orleans neighborhood restaurant — casual, rooted in local flavors and still open to other kinds of cravings that draw us to the table. For proprietors Alexis and Jordan Ruiz, a couple who started out in the business by their own bootstraps, it’s also a chance to spread their wings a bit further.
The Munch Factory took over the longtime home of the pizzeria Café Roma, situated in a vintage building in a cluster of other eateries and small businesses. It is significantly larger than the couple’s previous restaurant home on Elysian Fields Avenue near the lakefront. There's a stand-alone bar at the back of the long dining room, where the walls show paintings by New Orleans artist Ayo Scott.
The new location has a separate space for a private dining room, which will be built out soon. And the kitchen is much larger. In the coming weeks, chef Jordan Ruiz will introduce an expanded menu. Duck and waffles with an Asian-style barbecue sauce and mushroom vol-au-vent with Madeira cream are in the works. Brunch will also join the mix in the weeks ahead, with dishes like hot sausage patty eggs Benedict and crab cakes eggs Benedict.
There's more on the horizon too. The Munch Factory is one of a raft of local restaurants selected to open a location in a new terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which is projected to debut in 2018.
Culinary chops, Creole comfort
The Munch Factory’s specialty is in straightforward dishes with strong flavors, but it has always been a bit different from the casual neighborhood standards. The menu mixes the chef’s culinary school training, his born-and-bred New Orleans kitchen intuition and some answers for his wife’s own urgent cravings for updated comfort food. Alexis insists that her husband keeps a few particular dishes in play.
That explains why you can fill a table here with the bistro-style fines herbes chicken — pan-fried, then roasted and redolent with fresh herbs — right next to a classic shrimp remoulade and a plate of waffle-cut cheese fries topped with roast beef debris, with house-made ranch dressing on the side. Ruiz runs a kitchen where the "backyard burger twinz" (two burgers, each significantly larger than sliders) get the same attention as blackened redfish and oysters Gentilly, which are fried with caramelized onions on top, creamed spinach beneath (and yes, this dish is still named for the old neighborhood).
The husband and wife both hail from Gentilly. Jordan grew up cooking at home, worked in restaurants since he was a teenager and later attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Back home, he worked in a progression of big restaurants and hotels.
But when he was passed over for a promotion he felt he was due, he decided to leave the corporate kitchen. He and Alexis went into business for themselves, and they began with rented kitchen space in a Mid-City barroom (then called the Bayou Park Bar, now home to DMac’s Bar & Grill). They delivered phone-order hot lunches to family and friends and, eventually, to a broader circuit of regular customers.
It was a slow start. Ten orders a day was cause for celebration. But it was a start, and by 2011 they were able to open their first restaurant in Gentilly on Franklin Avenue. Just a year later they moved to a bigger location a few miles away.
The latest move is the biggest yet – both in terms of the larger space the Munch Factory now inhabits and for the change of neighborhood. Their new location is just off Magazine Street, in an area that draws plenty of tourists alongside the locals.
But then, change has been part of the Munch Factory's story from the start. As it's grown, it has shown how a causal eatery can modernize and speak to current tastes without discarding the culinary legacy that makes this city’s neighborhood restaurants so distinctive. Whatever its address, that has always made the Munch Factory worth crossing town to check out.
1901 Sophie Wright Pl., 504-324-5372
Lunch and dinner Tue.-Sat., brunch to come in mid-February
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