Go to any typical New Orleans neighborhood joint, and you’ll likely find fried seafood along for the ride. At a few, it even arrives in its own boat.
The classic New Orleans seafood boat is another entry in this city’s list of edible oddities. It flies brazenly in the face of modern low-carb diets, but survives at a handful of eateries and can kindle cravings in those with a nostalgic bent or who enjoy a little spectacle with their supper.
The boat resembles a seafood platter merged with an entire loaf of sandwich bread, and on the plate it looks like Paul Bunyan’s own po-boy.
But it’s not a po-boy, and it’s not even really a seafood platter. It belongs to its own highly specific sub-niche.
The recipe is rudimentary. Take a boxy, sandwich-style loaf of white bread, don’t slice it but hollow it out instead, and paint the insides with butter, or maybe even garlic butter. Then fill this hull of bread with some combination of fried shrimp, oysters and catfish and serve it to oohs and ahhs, rolling eyes and turned heads as it’s ferried across the dining room.
When two people split a seafood boat, it still looks like too much. When one person orders it, the thing looks ridiculous, like one of those if-you-can-finish-it-it’s-free restaurant dares.
But the seafood boat is no gimmick. It has a long history in New Orleans, and most tales pin its origin to Little Woods, the stretch of lakefront in New Orleans East where the water’s edge was once lined with camps and, across Hayne Boulevard, a clutch of seafood restaurants were at the ready.
Roots on the Lake
The Little Woods camps are long gone, and so are most of those restaurants. But a vestige of the old days is still rolling at Deanie’s on Hayne, a neighborhood lunch spot with no relation to the better known, much larger Deanie’s of Bucktown fame.
The Deanie here is Deanie Accardo, the restaurant’s founder and a naturally New Orleans force of nature. She celebrated her 82nd birthday last weekend and has not deviated from her schedule at the restaurant, arriving early in the morning for kitchen prep, then working the floor during lunch (Deanie’s is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays only), alternately charming, teasing, cajoling and hugging her customers.
Though her restaurant is known for seafood boats today, Accardo credits the creation to a restaurant that once stood next door, Lakeview Seafood. Founded in the 1950s, Lakeview was the first to make the seafood boat a lakefront specialty, Accardo said.
“I copied it, but I always thought mine was better,” she allowed, noting, as evidence, that Lakeview is gone and Deanie’s is not.
Deanie’s version is distinctive, and that starts with the loaf. Accardo calls hers “old time sweet bread,” and it has a billowy interior and a top crust folded into a plump braid. Inside, there’s expertly fried seafood – thin strips of catfish, butterflied shrimp for extra surface crunch, fat oysters -- and even a layer of French fries.
“The key is the frying,” said Accardo. “Anybody can probably make a boat, if they can get the bread good enough. But if they don’t fry right the seafood will just make the bread soggy.”
Loading the Loaf
Scouting more berths for the seafood boat around the area turned up a few different approached to the bread.
Kenner Seafood, out past the airport, uses a plus-sized French bread loaf from Cartozzo’s Bakery, the wholesale supplier based nearby. It has the texture of a po-boy loaf but the dimensions of a barge,with the top torn off and seafood erupting over the crusty sides.
At Lakeview Burgers & Seafood, a new, tiny storefront café on Harrison Avenue (and unrelated to the old lakefront Lakeview Seafood), the “seafood pirogue” is like a deconstructed seafood boat. Po-boy bread is slathered in garlic butter. cut into a small flotilla and formed into a ring around the seafood.
But if there’s an industry standard, it’s a specialty bread from Leidenheimer Baking Co. Sandy Whann, the company’s president, said it’s a large, unsliced Pullman loaf that the bakery has long called “the boat loaf.”
“I remember the old days at the lakefront when the preparation just involved hollowing it out, heating it well and throwing a stick of butter in before you added the mixed seafood,” Whann recalled.
At Morton’s Seafood, the riverfront restaurant in Madisonville, a Leidenheimer boat loaf arrives at the table with a carefully carved cargo hold gleaming yellow with butter. The boat also finds a berth at Bistro Orleans. This Metairie restaurant opened just last year, taking over the former Chad’s Bistro, which also served seafood boats. But for chef/owner Archie Saurage, the specialty goes back further to his own childhood memories of the old lakefront joints. It resonates with his customers too.
“Everyone talks about it. They all remember it from the lakefront,” Saurage said.
Of those who order it, however, few manage to finish it, even when it’s shared. The bread is just too much. For most people, a boat will mean leftovers. Follow one pro tip, and it might mean breakfast.
“What I always tell people to do is take that bread in the morning and butter it up again,” said Accardo at Deanie’s on Hayne. “Then put it in the toaster and eat it with your coffee.”
Deanie’s on Hayne
7350 Hayne Blvd, New Orleans, 504-248-6700
3140 Loyola Dr, Kenner, 504-466-4701
Lakeview Burgers & Seafood
872 Harrison Ave., 504-289-1032
3216 W Esplanade Ave, Metairie, 504-304-1469
702 Water St, Madisonville, 985-845-4970
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.