I had heard about the Big Easy, a restaurant in Winter Garden, from a good friend who used to live in New Orleans, the actual Big Easy in Louisiana. The best New Orleans food he’s had outside of the city itself, he told me. Better than Tibby’s, my current favorite, he said. Others echoed that sentiment on sites such as Urbanspoon. That was good enough for me, I headed to Winter Garden to try it for myself.
Tibby’s needn’t be concerned about the competition.
For one thing, Big Easy isn’t so easy to get to, at least not for those of us who live in downtown Orlando. It’s in a strip mall in the Stoneybrook West region of Winter Garden rather than in the downtown village district. I took three toll roads -- SR 408, Florida’s Turnpike and SR 429 -- to get there, although not all roads required a toll.
The atmosphere at Big Easy is casual to the point of having a diner feel. The kitchen is open (you could easily see a row of stools there) and there are more windows than wall space for decorations, it seems. The bare-topped tables are a royal purple. Of course, some of the best food in New Orleans can be found in uber casual spaces.
But nothing I tasted at Big Easy had me longing to return. The gumbo was a more watery version, which is how many Louisianans prefer it -- less thickening in the roux. But it also didn’t have much characteristic flavor.
Neither did the jambalaya, which was also overly dry. Estelle’s crawfish etouffe (no, no idea who Estelle is) looked the way it is supposed to, more of a brown gravy. But it was just bland. Both entrees were served with cornbread that had a texture similar to pound cake, smooth rather than crumbly.
Now, all of this is can be attributed to a matter of interpretation. My friend and the others who are perfectly happy with Big Easy may have found that the style of the food here most closely resembles the food of their youth, prepared in the same manner that their own relatives cooked the dishes. Any regional cuisine is subject to being rendered on a variation of a theme; I can’t argue with that.
But I must take umbrage with Big Easy’s assertion that its muffuletta “tastes like you’re right at the Central Grocery,” the store in New Orleans's French Quarter that is credited with inventing the iconic sandwich. As someone who has stood in line there dozens of times to get a muffuletta to go, I can tell you this sandwich bears little resemblance to Central Grocery’s. The bread was round, as it must be (I’m sure there’s a law), but it had the same airy texture of the cornbread. The green olive tapenade that gives the sandwich its distinct taste was there, but it accented a meagre amount of meat and cheese.
One welcome difference between the Big Easy and Central Grocery: the people here were quite friendly and welcoming. (The guy behind the counter at Central is one of the sourest people I’ve ever encountered in the food service industry.)
It may very well be that this is your ideal New Orleans food, even though it isn’t mine.
The Big Easy is in the Publix Shopping Plaza at 15502 Stoneybrook West Parkway, Winter Garden. It’s open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Prices are reasonable: $12.99 for the etouffe and $9.99 for the jambalaya. There is no dedicated website, but the restaurant maintains a Facebook page. The phone number is 407-654-3279.