1435 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
About six months ago, “Tin Fork’s” Ed Bedford reviewed Indigo Café and liked it. He mentioned that half the dinner menu consisted of New Orleans classics but tried none of them, sticking to the real American items. That left me eager to sample the Louisiana offerings on the menu someday. The downtown Indigo is one of two locations; the other is farther north on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard and offers mainstream café eats. On the website, the downtown Indigo says it’s “the blues café. Contemporary American café celebrating the cuisine and culture of New Orleans.”
Meanwhile, a potentially more serious Louisiana restaurant called the Big Easy recently opened in Hillcrest, run by TV chef-contestant Frankie “the Bull” Terzolli. Terzolli opened Bull’s BBQ in Bay Park (where the gumbo is grand) but pulled out during the long delay in obtaining a license to serve beer and wine, which was granted soon after his departure. Well, the Big Easy is open and Yelpers are raving about its meatloaf — but there’s still no menu online, so what else ya got? The booze license is also still pending. So I decided to try Indigo Café’s Big Easy dishes.
At the end of a hard Friday, Samurai Jim and I lounged happily at a patio table in the sun, enjoying silly cocktails until the rest of our gang gathered. My Hurricane was okay but with too much commercial fruit punch and not enough rum. His Bayou Juice was refreshing and sweeter yet. Lou, Michelle, and Emmy gradually filtered in, and we continued with al fresco cocktails until sunset. Best was King’s Cake, a martini variant made with fruited vodkas, while the Cajun Bloody Mary was spicy and delicious. A margarita was decent but a tad too sweet. Wild Berry Lemonade is an alcoholic fruit punch. When (and why) did all these cocktails get so horribly sweet, not just here but everywhere?
Shadows lengthening, we moved inside for dinner: a small restaurant with one and a half booths (the half faces a table, with chairs placed on the other side) and a dozen tables. There’s a long bar against one wall and an open short-order kitchen opposite. The cook looked more likely to be from Nuevo León than from Nuevo Orleans, but good cooks can easily learn other cuisines, so I didn’t yet lower my expectations. Decorations consist of various-sized black-and-white posters of legendary musicians — Coltrane, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, et al. But no music was playing in this “blues café,” though for once we’d have welcomed it, if it accorded with the decor and menu. A little Allen Toussaint or a sea cruise with Frankie Ford might’ve put me in the mood for an extra half-star, though waiter/bartender Bill provided entertainment with his line of chat.
Cajun popcorn shrimp were lightly battered, served with a tasty, lemony, spicy aioli dip — best dish of the evening. Fried okra were also light but soggy inside the batter, tasting more like overcooked zucchini than okra — a likely sign of frozen. Their dip was a Thousand Island dressing that calls itself “chipotle aioli.”
Shrimp-and-chicken gumbo was the tastiest of our entrées — but don’t get your hopes up. It bears not the slightest resemblance to any gumbo, Creole or Cajun, that you’re likely to encounter in Louisiana. It was a loose stew of diced chicken breast and thinly sliced andouille sausages fried until hard and chewy. Stop right now: the andouille should be cut in small cubes, lightly sautéed, and added to the liquid to cook along with the other goodies, giving it up to the aggregation and emerging firm-tender. The liquid was a light tomato sauce with a few shrimps added after they were cooked separately. (That’s good, keeps them tender.) Waiter Bill didn’t bring any cups to spoon it into, or any spoons, for that matter. They weren’t needed. It wasn’t a soup but a stew thick enough to splat onto our dinner plates and eat with a fork, not even oozing to the edge of the plate. I didn’t pick up any of the bass notes of a typical gumbo roux (a flour-oil mixture slowly cooked until mahogany-colored) — seems the tomatoes are the thickener, as in, say, marinara sauce. Supposedly, there is some okra in there. It eluded me, but if they’re using frozen, it’s already too denatured to work in a gumbo.
The Bubba Blues Jambalaya is so tragically inauthentic it might give even Bubba the blues. It’s basically rice and a few pieces of protein in a thin and slightly spicy light-brown gravy: The sauce seems to be meat or poultry stock thickened with a light roux. I couldn’t perceive any tomato in there (and jambalaya is tomato-based, not roux-based). Sounds as if somebody got their recipes crossed: Jambalaya is supposed to have the tomatoes dominant; gumbo is supposed to have roux and stock, with just a little tomato. Worse yet, the chicken consists of thin slabs of dried-out blackened white meat. Isn’t it about time to bury anything blackened in the tomb of forgotten recipes? Even Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun original is famously ersatz, causing chuckles from real Cajuns since he invented it. “Now I know what to call it when my woman burn the food — we’ll call it ‘blackened!’ ” is a joke I’ve heard too often.
Cajun Pesto Pasta with shrimp (and more blackened chicken strips) bears a faint resemblance to Commander’s Palace’s Creole (not Cajun) cream sauce seafood pasta. Pesto? Could easily happen in New Orleans, with its huge Italian community and all those sophisticated food influences. Cajun pesto? Not likely! Whatever, it’s mild, creamy, gooey, with melted mozzarella and plump sautéed mushroom caps and not nearly enough seafood. The pasta is soggy but a guilty delight of babyish comfort food.
The oyster po’ boy comes close, failing mainly on account of the bread. The oysters have a light (if thickish) batter that sheds no grease. The French roll is properly dressed with shredded cabbage, sliced tomatoes, and pickles, and the topside is spread with Thousand Island dressing (or “chipotle aioli,” per the menu) — all close enough. But at first taste I said, “Ick, mushy bread!” Here in San Diego, it can’t be New Orleans’ light French bread, but these sludgy French rolls could be manipulated to taste more like it, using the same technique as some New Orleans cafés do: First, halve the bread so the top is thinner than the bottom. Then scoop out some of the bottom half’s interior to form a hollow to hold the oysters and garnishes. Finally, butter both cut halves and toast them on the grill, cut side down, until pale golden brown. Then proceed with the sandwich. Also, the lemony aioli that accompanied the popcorn shrimp would be a more authentic topping than this pink sauce. The fried oysters are available with dip as a starter. I’d order them that way, if I were to go back.
The last of the regular Louisiana choices is red beans and rice, an abomination. This dish started as a Monday washday dinner because it simmers without much attention for hours, while Mama’s at the washateria. The beans are cooked at leisure with some type of fatty, smoky pork (smoked hocks, leftover hambone, or, for the health-conscious, smoked turkey wings) until their liquid tastes deep and rich, not just beany, but smoky and meaty. Before serving, additional pork products (whole or chopped-up sausages, chunks of ham or tasso, even franks) are tossed in to cook in the thick liquid. Red beans and rice has become one of those iconic New Orleans dishes, a staple of local house parties on Mardi Gras Day, cooked in huge quantities and served to guests passing through from one celebration to the next.
At Indigo, no fatty or smoky meat has been harmed to produce this broth. The beans taste as if they’ve been cooked in plain water to be all-purpose ready for, say, vegetarian chili, or other dishes on the menu. They come with those over-fried slices of andouille. I can’t remember whether or not they also had blackened chicken.
Worse to come: We also tried a special of grilled double pork chop étouffée stuffed with shrimp. Paul Prudhomme — NOT. The stuffing proved a dry bread-crumb fluff, with maybe some chopped shrimp in there, but who knows? Who could eat it? The pork was cooked to shoe leather. The mac ’n’ cheese on the side was mild and glutinous. I wouldn’t even doggy-bag the leavings, which was nearly all of it. Emmy took it home for her real canine pets.
I’m not saying that Indigo Café is a bad restaurant — after all, Tin Fork liked the American dishes he tried, and much of our food was edible. If you work downtown, you can sit on the patio when day is done, lounge in the sun, and drink some rum. But if you’re looking for Creole or Cajun food, what’s most remarkable here is its 100 percent failure rate. Have the owners never heard of cookbooks? For a few bucks’ investment, the kitchen could get some education. (Start with the basic New Orleans Cookbook by Richard and Rima Collin, available in paperback.)
The food, at least the Louisiana side of it, works out much like the room: There are pictures of the jazz and blues greats all over but none of their music playing — and nothing remotely soulful coming off the stove.
A Few More New Orleans Cookbooks: all available on Amazon.com.
Cooking Up a Storm. Gathered and issued by the NOLA Times-Picayune, this paperback is a collection of home recipes, restaurant dishes, and newspaper recipes lost to the damage of Katrina but recovered from readers and the newspaper’s files. It’s already a home-cooking favorite of mine.
Real Cajun by Donald Link. This has to be the anti-Prudhomme book, by one of the top chefs in Nawlins, born Cajun, who has taken up making his own sausages, et al. There’s more than that in here — plenty of plain country eats. I haven’t cooked from it yet, just slavered over the recipes.
My New Orleans by John Besh. How to cook like Nawlins’ current top chef.
Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer. Another top chef, but her version of NOLA cooking lightens it and brings it up to date with Cal cuisine. Great food, but not traditional.
Tom Fitzmorris’s New Orleans Food. Restaurant and home recipes, large-format paperback. In the few years since I bought it, I haven’t used it. Don’t know why not. So many cookbooks, so little time.
Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse: Stick to their first cookbooks, before they became celebrities. Both are useful for serious cooks. Prudhomme’s dishes are labor-intensive and scary rich, but that’s just how it is. Emeril pre-BAM! is straightforward, a decent starter to cooking NOLA-style — although the very best recipe comes from his New England childhood, a Portuguese greens, potato, and sausage soup.
1435 Sixth Avenue, downtown, 619-702-6478, indigocafeandcatering.com
HOURS: Monday–Friday 7:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Saturday 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Sunday 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $5–$12; salads, $9–$15; entrées, burgers, pizzas, $9–$19; sandwiches, $10–$13; breakfast dishes, $6–$13.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Dinner menu divided between standard San Diego casual fare and New Orleans dishes. Modest wine list, all under $40. Full bar, creative cocktails.
PICK HITS: King’s Cake martini; Cajun Bloody Mary; popcorn shrimp, fried oysters. Best guesses: regular American food.
NEED TO KNOW: Metered street parking (free after 6:00 p.m.), numerous lots all around. (Please note: Review covers Louisiana dishes only. American dishes reviewed September 2009 by “Tin Fork.”) Atmosphere: come as you are, unless your nickname is Filthy McNasty.