In Lieu Of The Bayou

The French Quarter's Cajun-Creole Kitchen Adds Spice To Midtown.

FROM NEW ORLEANS' historic French Quarter spills the legendary Bourbon Street, a raucous concentration of the district's Spanish and French architecture, world class cuisine, and sizzling jazz and blues venues. It's been said that the little stretch of road packs in more fun than any other spot in the entire breadth of these United States.

The French Quarter, a new venue on East Grant Road near Country Club Road, transports the spirit and savor of its namesake to midtown. The restaurant and bar specializes in live music, a friendly roadhouse ambiance and hearty Cajun-Creole cooking that brings the bayou to bar food. Those interested in Cheers-like camaraderie and down-home Louisiana cooking will find The French Quarter enormously enjoyable.

Colorful, glimmering garlands accent the forest green and faux red brick interior. Black booths and high-backed chairs are set around glass-topped tables revealing sections of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. During daylight hours a jukebox offers a selection of popular tunes as well as jazz and blues favorites. A single pool table invites near-constant action, and the conversation at the bar -- which features a couple televisions tuned into the sporting event du jour -- is lively and jocular.

The bartenders at The French Quarter are extraordinary. Not only do they keep solicitous watch over the taps, but they also cater to the needs of the hungry.

Although the bar was packed when we arrived, a boisterous "Hey, y'all" greeted our entry along with an invitation to "sit anywhere we want." The bartender produced menus, took drink orders and communicated our selections to the kitchen, while simultaneously making change for the pool table, flipping the TV channel to check the score of another game and refilling pints of beer. And he never looked rushed, rattled or perturbed.

For those looking to satisfy a modest appetite, fried delicacies, chicken wings or baked and stuffed potato skins do an admirable job. The Southern cheese sticks ($4.99) match lightly breaded rectangles of gooey mozzarella cheese with a deliciously piquant marinara sauce enlivened with bits of diced tomato. Also delicious is the Garden District Platter ($3.99), a plastic basket cradling fried okra, zucchini and onion rings. The distinctive fried fare is delicately dusted with cornmeal and loads of freshly ground black pepper, and a home-style ranch dressing adds a creamy touch of tang to the flavors.

Cajun specialties include red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo and Southern-fried catfish. Recipes change from day to day, so be sure to ask your server which variation of gumbo and jambalaya is available when you visit. I sampled the Gumbo Ya Ya ($4.99), which pairs chicken with spicy andouille sausage. Served in a large soup bowl, the thick gumbo stew of chicken, sliced sausage, onions, celery and green pepper is ladled over a mound of fluffy white rice. It's a divine combination, but for my palate the andouille sausage lacks fire. It delivers the characteristic smokiness, but not the potent spiciness I'd expected. However, a splash or two of Tabasco (large bottles are available at every table) easily added the kick I was seeking. The accompanying wedge of warm cornbread is ideal for sopping up every last bite.

The French Quarter's menu also features burgers and sandwiches, but like most of the restaurant's fare, they aren't your everyday quick bites. The kitchen eschews the common bun in favor of French bread and Kaiser rolls, and the savory filling in between is spiced far beyond the usual shake of salt and pepper.

The Lafayette burger ($6.49) is a half-pound ground beef patty liberally seasoned with "Creole spices" and served on a French roll with sautéed mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, sliced onion and melted sharp cheddar cheese. Pepper, filé powder and cayenne mingle tantalizingly with the separate ingredients and enhance the whole. Unfortunately, the French roll faltered under the burger's weighty succulence and soon collapsed into the basket; a knife and fork assured the meal's happy continuation.

The Cajun chicken sandwich's ($5.99) Kaiser roll supports its contents admirably. Moist slices of tender grilled breast meat are infused with a seasoning similar to the burger's and placed on a Kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato, onion and choice of melted cheese (American, Swiss, cheddar or provolone).

However, the hands-down sandwich standout is the N'awlins Po' Boy ($4.99 for a 6-inch, $6.99 for a 10-inch), a Big Easy specialty made with choice of turkey, catfish, ham or roast beef piled on a French roll with lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayonnaise. The result is somewhat messy, but like everything else on the menu, the taste more than compensates.

Zesty Cajun fries -- tender, golden wedges sifted with cayenne pepper -- accompany all sandwiches.

Dessert isn't the draw at The French Quarter, but no trip to New Orleans would be complete without a platter of beignets, a traditional deep-fried yeast pastry served fresh-from-the-fryer with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar. Beignets, which derive their name from the French word for "fritter," are similar to the Mexican sopapillas. It's a simple offering, and exquisite when done well.

The French Quarter may not be Bourbon Street, but it's close. And on a fine Tucson afternoon, it's very close indeed.

The French Quarter. 3146 E. Grant Road. 318-4767. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., with Happy Hour from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Beer and wine. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $1.99-$6.99.
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