Juicy, well-seasoned fried chicken, fat stuffed peppers, lots of seafood and gumbo packed with flavor and made with one indispensable ingredient: local pride.
These are cornerstones of black Creole restaurants, sometimes called Creole soul, a category that is fundamental to the New Orleans food story.
As the city's dining scene continues to change, restaurants centered on these homegrown flavors are also staking out some new turf.
One modern classic of the category, Li’l Dizzy’s, recently expanded, while a mix of some familiar names and new additions have been making their own moves, bringing the flavors to more neighborhoods. Here’s what’s new:
Pee Wee’s Crabcakes finds a home
A year ago, Charles “Pee Wee” Armstrong was delivering orders of his homemade crabcakes to an extended network of family and friends. By the summer, he turned it into a take-out operation with head-turning Creole-style seafood platters, based in his brother’s Central City bakery, On Faith Donut Shop.
As of the new year, though, Pee Wee’s Crabcakes has a new home in downtown New Orleans, 709 St. Charles Ave., (504) 358-7986.
“I’m finally able to serve my food the way I wanted to, as a true restaurant,” Armstrong said. “It’s getting closer to my dream.”
Pee Wee’s Crabcakes is now based in the downtown CBD Social, which had hosted pop-ups in the past. Now it operates as a hybrid, with CBD Social handling the bar and Pee Wee’s running the kitchen.
There’s a full bar, a pool table and TVs. In the kitchen, Armstrong will still pack up take-out orders. But now he can plate and serve them too for table service.
The draw here is Armstrong's original way with specialty New Orleans seafood dishes.
The namesake crabcakes are thin, creamy-textured and finished with a sweet, tangy sauce, a creation Armstrong attributes to his 16-year-old daughter Asya.
The combination platters look pricey at $40 but arrive with enough food for several people. The “seafood tornado,” for instance, packs together crabcakes, stuffed hard shell crabs, stuffed catfish, seafood pasta and broccoli. This is exuberant casual dining with a sense of place.
Pee Wee’s serves lunch through late night, staying open to midnight for the service industry crowd downtown.
D’z returns in Treme
Chef D’z Café has moved around a few times. But no matter the address the food let you know you could be in only New Orleans.
Now it has a new spot in Treme, 1535 Basin St., (504) 827-1785.
As with its earlier incarnations, Chef D’z serves the standards, like red beans and rice with fried chicken, yaka mein and Creole gumbo, alongside an inexpensive breakfast menu.
The location has seen a number of eateries in recent years, including, at one point, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ Treme Speakeasy.
This new Chef D’z Café eventually will have live music on weekends.
“Chef D” is Donald Smith, a chef who came to the profession in the traditional New Orleans way — through family. Smith said his first love for cooking was set by his mother, Doris (she’s the Mama D at Chef D’z).
Raising her son on her own, she wasn’t always home to cook. But she would call from her office job and guide the young boy through the steps for fixing a meal, like a latchkey kid with a slotted spoon and a saucepan.
Smith later worked at New Orleans hotels and restaurants and at the convention center, but he still feels the early stirrings that set his path.
“Your food is your gift,” Smith said. “When you’re able to share that with someone, it means you’re feeding people and feeding their souls.”
Sassafras doubles down downtown
Sassafras Creole and Seafood Cottage opened in November at 201 Baronne St., as part of the Wyndam Garden Baronne Plaza hotel.
It’s a new expansion from a same family that has been serving New Orleans staples for many years in a progression of restaurants, including the original Sassafras Restaurant in the Gentilly.
“The essence is the same as we’ve always done,” said Corey Duckworth, who runs the family business with his mother Sandra.
While it has some modern updates, the menu at Sassafras is anchored by dishes deeply rooted in New Orleans neighborhoods and local families, specifically through the black Creole tradition.
Some signatures are stuffed bell peppers with baked macaroni, smothered okra and shrimp and the smothered liver and onions. The filé gumbo is loaded with seafood and hot sausage, among other meats.
The new location adds a daily breakfast menu, with dishes like praline waffles, chicken and waffles, fish and grits and seafood omelets.
The family’s restaurant history goes back to Ora Mae's Creole Cafe, a cafeteria-style eatery in the (now long gone) Lake Forest Plaza Mall. In 2004, the Duckworths opened the original Sassafras on Bullard Avenue. While flooding after Hurricane Katrina did in that location, the restaurant later reopened a mile away inside a motel on Read Boulevard. It relocated to Gentilly in 2011.
Duckworth said the family is excited about an expansion to a booming part of town.
“I’m really excited about being downtown, in the heart of New Orleans,” Duckworth said. “It’s a pinnacle for us. Coming from humble beginnings to having a place downtown means a lot to the family.”
Sassafras Creole and Seafood Cottage serve breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
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