I had some terrific New Orleans food the other day, even though it included one of the worst jambalayas ever. But more about that in a moment.
I was in the extreme south Orlando area, meaning the region below Sand Lake Road between John Young Parkway and South Orange Blossom Trail. We should have a name for that, like New York has TriBeCa for Triangle Below Canal or SoHo for South of Houston. TriBeSaLa? SoSa? Whatever.
This area is rife with independently owned restaurants, many specializing in Indian cuisine. The quality of the restaurants runs a wide gamut and you never can be certain what you’re going to get -- sort of like playing chaat roulette.
But I was surprised when I was driving up OBT to see this little storefront in one of the many small strip malls with a rather plain sign that announced Little New Orleans Kitchen & Oyster Bar. I pulled in and sat out front for a moment. It did not look promising. In fact, it looked pretty divey. But hey, some of the best restaurants in New Orleans are dives. So why not?
Before the door had closed behind me, a young woman behind the counter called out a welcome. She came around and asked if I wanted to sit at the oyster bar or at a table. I preferred a table, I said, and she invited me to take may pick -- most were unoccupied.
The menu is as small as the space, and it’s a bit odd. As the name suggests, oysters are a big part of the offerings, whether raw, steamed, fried or otherwise. But there are a few other Cajun and creole favorites as well. One of the odd things about the menu was that such things as jambalaya and etouffee are listed under the Soup & Salad category. Jambalaya is a favorite of mine, and a half order was offered at $3.95. So I ordered that and chose my oysters to be served inside a po’boy, fully dressed.
Now, jambalaya is one of those dishes that is open to a number of interpretations. There is no set recipe and no required list of ingredients, though it is generally assumed that it is a rice-based dish. (Actually, I’ve even been served jambalayas that were made with pasta in the past, which was just as dreadful as it sounds.) Even in New Orleans, you’ll find a wide variety of versions, with such ingredients as chicken, shrimp, crawfish, sausage and such, all blended in and cooked with the rice.
But I’ve never been served a jambalaya in the Big Easy that wasn’t a blended rice style. So I was a little crestfallen when the Little New Orleans Kitchen server brought the jambalaya. It was served on a foam plate -- that was fine. And I could see lots of shrimp and chunks of sausage and strips of green peppers. All acceptable ingredients. But it was more of a stew, served over a timbale of white rice. No, this is not the first time I’ve been served jambalaya like this. In fact I’ve seen it at least three times in the past year, all here in Central Florida. Sorry, but to me that just isn’t jambalaya. It was closer to an etouffee, but definitely more creole than Cajun.
So that’s why it was one of the worst jambalayas ever. But it was also amazingly delicious. The rouxy base was layered with spicing and had a rich, buttery texture. The shrimp were just the right size -- tails off, thank you -- and had the perfect tender-firm texture. The sausage added a spicy note. And it should be mentioned that the half order was larger than you’d expect for a full entree. It was the best worst jambalaya I’ve had.
And the oyster po’boy was equally as impressive. The oysters were breaded and deftly fried so that the jackets were crispy and not at all greasy. You tasted oysters instead of breading. The plentiful oysters were accompanied by sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce, plus a bit of remoulade. But just as important as the oysters, the French bread roll they were served on was fresh and chewy. It’s the bread that trips up most restaurants that want to serve a decent po’boy.
Little New Orleans has a diner sort of feel. The oyster bar counter looks into the short-order kitchen area. Just a few tables line the wall. They have unattractive tabletops and rolls of paper towels. The place has a certain amount of dinge to it, but I found it clean and pleasant.
The people working there helped make it so. I felt genuinely welcome, and the hospitality continued until I walked out, when I was thanked for coming.
New Orleans has been on the mind of many Central Floridians lately (Go, Knights!). If you’d like to remind yourself what good Cajun and Creole food tastes like, you’ll want to head to South Orange Blossom Trail soon.
Little New Orleans Kitchen and Oyster Bar is at 9741 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. It does not have a website. Besides the ridiculously low priced “jambalaya,” I paid $7.50 for the po-boy. The phone number is 407-438-6990.