Dig Baton Rouge

Cover Story: Around the world in 6 authentic plates

Yeah, you can get 10 versions of gumbo within a five-mile radius, but what
about when you have a hankering for something different? Take a trip
around the world with the delectable cuisines Baton Rouge has to offer.

Honduras

La Reyna Restaurant
by Josh Jackson

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Hidden on the corner of a strip far down Perkins Road sits La Reyna Restaurant, a symbol of pride for a culture often forgotten about.

For almost 14 years, La Reyna’s owner Isabel Jacobs has been the one of few providers of Honduran food to Baton Rouge citizens—a title she holds proudly.

Jacobs came to America from Honduras 20 years ago. After working in the food industry for so long, she found herself tired of working for someone else and wanted to bring her native foods to her new residence.

La Reyna’s menu is filled with authentic Honduran dishes cooked with ingredients that are specially imported from New Orleans or Houston. These imports include popular Honduran drinks as well.

Not to be confused with Mexican food, Honduran cuisine is made with more fresh vegetables such as cabbage and tomatoes. It is also less greasy and typically comes with sides of fried plantains.

Jacobs says the restaurant’s biggest successes come in the form of it’s beef soup and La Cena, a dish incorporating scrambled eggs, refried beans, avocado, cheese, carne asada and plantains.

“Being able to bring over the food I’ve made my entire life, it’s a blessing,” Jacobs said. “It’s important to keep the culture alive [in Baton Rouge].”

With lunch specials from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. every Monday through Friday, La Reyna finds most of its business during the middle of the day. Those who go there regularly say they keep returning because it feels more like eating at home than in a restaurant.

La Reyna is fairly small, but Jacobs said she wouldn’t want it any other way. To her, the simple design is a replication of the way food should be.
“I focus on the food,” Jacobs said. “I like the way it feels when I walk in here every day. I feel like I’m home and the food just has to reflect that.”
Along with being a restaurant, La Reyna functions as a semi-grocery store selling Honduran bags of plantains, pork rinds, drinks and even some medicines that Jacobs herself uses.

“I have these vitamins that I use and some other simple things and people would always ask me about them, so I decided to start selling them,” she said. “Some of the fellow Hondurans in Baton rouge recognize these more than they do normal, American products, so it helps them too.”

La Reyna Restaurant serves as a staple for Baton Rouge’s Honduran community and Jacobs is well aware of that. With 14 years under her belt and more to come, she hopes that more people take interest in the city’s smaller food communities showing there’s character in the little things.

Vietnam

Ava Street Cafe
by Chris Vitenas

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Tucked among corporate office buildings, the ever-congested Essen Lane, and in close proximity to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, you might accidentally overlook professionally trained Chef Ethan Huynh and his new restaurant Ava Street Café, where he churns out classic Vietnamese dishes as well as his own unique specials that push those familiar flavor profiles into new territory.

Those familiar with Houma-based Zen Japanese Grill may recognize Chef Huynh’s name and the attention to detail he brings to all of his dishes. This emphasis on presentation stems from Huynh’s time spent at Tsunami in Lafayette, where he honed his skills and familiarized himself with unique flavor profiles and plating concepts. Recognizing the booming sushi industry, the ever-entrepreneurial Huynh utilized his sushi skills to open Zen at only 24 years old.

After years in Houma running Zen, Huynh’s ambition drove him to enroll at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute to strengthen his skills. Bolstered by formal culinary training and stints at John Besh’s flagship Restaurant August in New Orleans, as well as the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Benu in San Francisco, Huynh resolved to open Ava Street Café with the aim of expanding people’s perception of what Vietnamese cuisine can be.

“Ava was my next evolution as an entrepreneur and chef, to come to a bigger market and challenge myself,” Huynh said. To make his mark and expand into the larger community of Baton Rouge, Huynh recalled his roots and the food cooked by one of the best chefs he knew: his mother.

“I’ve always believed in my mom’s food and wanted people to taste it on a more progressive scale,” Huynh said.

Make no mistake, the Vietnamese classics served at Ava still taste authentic, and Huynh ensures the integrity of his mother’s recipes by personally cooking each dish that comes out of the kitchen.

“I had to make [sure] my mom’s food was cooked properly,” Huynh said.
Ava’s initial menu is anchored by Vietnamese classics like pho, vermicelli and recently added banh mi sandwiches, which utilize a custom baguette different from the traditional Dong Phuong-style. The baguette maintains the toothsome texture so necessary in a banh mi “but is not as doughy on the inside,” said Huynh.

As these traditional Vietnamese dishes become established, Chef Huynh plans to bring many more offerings to Ava’s menu that attempt to span the bridge between those familiar flavors that his customers have come to love and those that he knows they could when presented properly.

“It’s a slow process and I am hoping to be part of bringing a more progressive food culture to Baton Rouge,” Huynh said.

An example of one of these progressive dishes is the recently introduced kimchi fries: crispy seasoned fries are topped with marinated, grilled pork, house made spicy mayo, wasabi sour cream, kimchi, cilantro, scallions and thinly ribboned beets that provide a spark of color and add height to the dish.

“Now that the Vietnamese dishes are becoming established, I am really starting to create and make things that I would enjoy eating,” explained Huynh as he described the background of the new and upcoming dishes.
Huyn has plans to implement a series of small creative dishes, a vegetarian option and a happy hour when patrons can enjoy these new creations and take advantage of the restaurant’s spacious bar.

“Food is an experience,” and the people of Baton Rouge “deserve more than just burgers and wings,” urged Huynh.

Great Britian

The Londoner Pub & Grill
by Josh Jackson

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There’s more to British food than fish and chips, but it’s hard to realize that unless you’ve been there—or at least a place inspired by it.

For six years, The Londoner Pub & Grill has been Baton Rouge’s go-to place for food and festivities related to the Union Jack. Stemming from a sister restaurant in Dallas, The Londoner finds its groove in being a happy medium between pub food and dishes from other cultures.

Trey Hebert, the restaurant’s general manager, said the idea for The Londoner came from its British owner who saw a need to bring his native country’s style of food to the United States.

British food is not known for having much flavor or taste, but The Londoner counters that stereotype by specially seasoning their foods and adding dishes such as a chicken tikka masala with Indian spices and a caribbean pulled pork dish.

“[The Londoner] makes really hearty dishes,” Hebert said. “Everything is really crispy and filling like you expect food from a pub to be.”

For a challenge, The Londoner presents the Big Ben burger, a four pound burger with four slices of cheddar and swiss cheese, four eggs, a heap of standard dressings and two pounds of cheese fries with dipping sauces. Challengers have 60 minutes to clear the plate and eat for free.

On weekends, The Londoner also offers a brunch menu from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. that features chicken and waffles and a spin on eggs benedict.

To accompany all that food, there has to be beer. The Londoner offers multiple imported drafts with eight rotating taps. Hebert said it’s British culture to have a pint of beer with a meal and that tradition carries over well with the Louisiana audience.

More than the food and drinks, The Londoner is wall-to-wall covered with British items that make it feel like a true themed establishment. Call boxes, flags, and soccer paraphernalia fill the building, completing the pub aesthetic.

Hebert said the atmosphere is always laid back at The Londoner. Customers are never forced to quickly eat and leave as is the case with other restaurants. Regulars are known to sit for hours speaking with friends and family or watching television, something Hebert believes makes them want to return.

Across the pond, soccer is the big sport and that same feeling exists within The Londoner. It is one of the few locations in Baton Rouge that shows every soccer matchup each week. On an early Saturday or Sunday morning, “football” fans are gathering at the restaurant to watch the biggest matches in the Premier League, Major League Soccer or any other league.

The Londoner also serves as the official home for the Baton Rouge chapter of the American Outlaws, a national group who supports the United States National Soccer Teams.

“We’ve become that place for soccer fans to go to watch their favorite teams with other fans,” Hebert said. “They all stare at each other and give dirty looks, but it’s all in good fun.”

The Londoner is looking at expanding its menu in 2017 but promises to stay true to its British roots, as that is what has made it one of the city’s most popular spots.

Caribbean

Caribbean Joe’s Cafe
By Gordon Brillon

CaribbianJoes-8

When winter comes, birds fly south. “Snowbirds,” wealthy Northerners looking to escape the chilly weather, fly to island retreats in Key West, Curacao or St. John.

Winter in Baton Rouge isn’t usually enough to drive anyone away, but if those 65-degree January days make you long for a Caribbean escape, Caribbean Joe’s Cafe has the best answer in town.

Jose Boriel, a native of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Rocco Moreau, a Louisiana restaurant entrepreneur and former state Senate candidate, opened Caribbean Joe’s earlier this year to test the willingness of the Baton Rouge market to experiment with Caribbean flavors and dishes. They plan to eventually open a full service island-themed restaurant, but for now, Caribbean Joe’s offers a balance between Louisiana flavors and a Caribbean experience for breakfast and lunch.

The menu centers around po-boys—on the face an odd choice for a Caribbean restaurant, but this part of the menu is borrowed from Moreau’s other restaurant chain, Rocco’s New Orleans Style Poboys and Cafe. They’re supplemented with traditional American breakfast fare and specialty coffee, but it’s in the specialty sandwiches that Caribbean Joe’s island roots shine through.

The Cubano is one of the cafe’s most popular items, said co-owner Jake Boriel, who is Jose’s son. A classic popularized in the U.S. by the Cuban expatriate community in Miami, the sandwich consists of a thick slice of ham topped with pulled pork and Swiss cheese, dressed with pickles and mustard. Caribbean Joe’s orders the specialty bread for the sandwich, thinner and crunchier than typical po-boy bread, from a bakery just outside of Miami.
In a way, Caribbean Joe’s mixture of cuisines reflects the way Jake Boriel grew up. Jake was born in New Orleans but spent a lot of time with his family in St. Croix. With his dad frequently working long hours, he said he “grew up in [his] grandmothers’ kitchens.” On his father’s side, that meant rice with peas, slow-cooked pork and other Caribbean traditions. On his mother’s side, his grandmother, who was of Cajun descent, was an expert in jambalaya and gumbo. Talking to Jake, Caribbean Joe’s combination of po-boys and Caribbean flavors starts to make more sense.

Joe’s will launch a new menu this month, but the Louisiana-Caribbean connection will remain intact. Jake said one dish to watch out for is the pernil sandwich — what he called the Caribbean answer to a traditional roast beef po-boy. Pernil is a traditional Puerto Rican slow-roasted pork shoulder traditionally served on holidays, Jake said. Joe’s will be serving it up on Cuban bread with Romaine lettuce, cilantro, grilled onions and pepperjack cheese, making for a messy, indulgent sandwich with Caribbean roots to rival any debris po-boy New Orleans could serve up.

Indian

Alnoor Indian Restaurant
By Chris Vitenas

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Born to a family of self-taught butchers and cooks in Old Delhi, India in 1969, Mohamed Hanif grew up observing his grandparents and father cook many of the dishes you’ll find on Alnoor Indian Restaurant’s menu today. An abbreviated story of Alnoor’s origins begins in Bombay, India at the Taj Hotel. Hanif’s father moved him and his family here from Old Delhi when he was offered a job as a chef in the hotel’s restaurant. Hanif’s father’s skills began to gather him quite a following at the Taj, but one dish in particular would lay the groundwork for the Hanif family’s next adventure. Goat paya, a dish of spiced, braised goat’s feet, is widely consumed in India.

“It is a breakfast dish eaten to keep warm in winter,” Hanif said.
After eating Hanif’s father’s goat paya, one well-known patron of the restaurant left a glowing review in the hotel’s comment book. The comments eventually reached the ears of a well-known New York restaurateur, who was so impressed with Hanif’s father’s skills that he asked him to come to New York to work in his Manhattan restaurant, Raja. The Hanif family packed their bags and headed to America, where Hanif continued to display his butchering skills in his father’s restaurants in New York.

While in New York, Hanif broadened his skills and began cooking many of the dishes he had watched his father and grandparents cook for so many years in India. Some time later, a Baton Rouge native visiting New York sampled Hanif’s food and was so captivated that he offered Hanif the chef position at Bayleaf Indian Cuisine, located here in Baton Rouge. Hanif accepted the offer and moved his family to Baton Rouge where he cooked at Bay Leaf for three years. However, Hanif’s desire to own his own restaurant eventually drove him to open Al Noor in early 2013. Translated to “brightness,” Al Noor certainly shines light on what is shaping up to be an ethnic food corridor in Baton Rouge.

Given the restaurant’s vast menu, which comprises over 100 North Indian specialties, one can truly appreciate, and realize the necessity of, Hanif’s deep culinary background as he personally cooks every single order shuttled out of the kitchen.

“We cook all home-style food,” said Hanif’s daughter, Sayma, who manages the front of the restaurant. “Most people say that our food tastes like home and that they forget they are eating at a restaurant when they taste our food.”

This is certainly not to suggest that the food is not restaurant quality; rather, it reinforces Hanif’s passion for passing down the food and recipes that he spent so much time learning as a young man and that imbues a sense of comfort in all those who partake.

Some of these home-cooked specialties include the ubiquitous chicken tikki masala, a red-hued, glossy dish composed of tender pieces of tandoori-fired chicken simmered in a creamy, spiced tomato sauce; samosas, deep fried patties stuffed with fresh potatoes, green peas, and freshly ground Indian spices; and goat roganjosh, tender cubes of goat simmered in yogurt, herbs, and delicate Indian spices. All of these dishes and others are on display during Alnoor’s lunch buffet. The buffet consists of a rotating selection of Al Noor’s menu items, including salad, rotating soups, and unlimited naan, a traditional leavened white bread. If partaking in the buffet, do not sleep on the array of chutneys available to accompany your dish and truly push it over the top.

There is a saying some use when gambling to justify their spending: you can’t win if you don’t play. Put differently, there is no big payout without some risk. That saying applies with equal force when taking chances on new restaurant options. However, I can assure you that when applied to Al Noor Indian Restaurant, the gamble is guaranteed to pay off.

Greek

Zorba’s Greek Bistro
By Gordon Brillon

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When Dino and Polina Economides first moved to Baton Rouge from Greece in 1980, they were young, single students pursuing degrees in electrical engineering and computer science at LSU. Four years later, they were married and running a restaurant, Zorba’s, which Dino’s brother had opened. They eventually closed the restaurant in 2000 to move back to Europe.

Thirteen years later, they decided to try it again.

This time moving from Cyprus, where they brought their children to immerse them in the Greek culture central to their identities and restaurant, the Economideses reopened Zorba’s in 2013.

“We always knew we were going to come back,” Polina said.

What they didn’t know was how much Baton Rouge wanted them back. After closing the original restaurant, the Economideses expected another struggle to find a niche for their fine-dining brand of authentic Greek and Mediterranean cuisine. They had found an audience for their first restaurant, but only after a period of suspicion from the generally conservative Baton Rouge public appetite. They figured it would take another adjustment period for the new restaurant to find its feet.

They soon found out that once Baton Rouge accepts you, you’re in for life.
“As soon as people found out we were back, they were asking us when we were opening,” Dino said. “Our first night, the restaurant was full. It was a little crazy, maybe more than we could handle, but it was amazing.”
That’s not to say nothing changed while they were away. They returned to a Baton Rouge food scene that had matured and cosmopolitanized. Luckily, so had they.

While they returned to Greece to give their children a taste of the culture they grew up with, they took advantage of Europe’s culinary and cultural riches. Traveling across the continent on summer vacations, they soaked in the knowledge of techniques and ingredients everywhere they went. One summer, it was sailing island to island in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy, learning about each island’s distinct cuisine. Another summer, it was the south of France, where Polina said they found “some of the best food in the world.”

All of it helped the pair take advantage of a newly adventurous Baton Rouge food scene upon their return. With the restaurant at a new location on Essen Lane, they revived the traditional Greek menu of the original and added a modern twist.

“Fresh ingredients are much more available now, and people are looking for more farm-to-table food,” Polina said. “We can get our lamb from local farms. Of course there are still ingredients you can’t get locally, but we try to get as much as we can.”

Photos by Kristine Stone.

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