Kenner: 3244 Georgia Ave.
For most of the time it was open, El Patio was without question the best Mexican restaurant in the New Orleans area. There were not many cantinas around here that were up to Texan standards–let alone Mexican–in those days. But even in the much larger, more interesting Mexican category now days, El Patio would still be a standout. Its extensive, ambitious menu offered excitement in terms of variety, originality and sheer goodness.
George Rodriguez and his family opened El Patio at a time when the Baby Boomers were coming of age and sought out more interesting food than their parents always ate. George had already made a splash with his first restaurant, the Cosmopolitan. Its menu was half Mexican, half Greek. It didn’t last long, but if you ever ate there you’d never forget it.
By the time George opened El Patio, his sons were old enough to work in the restaurant. By the time they were in their teens, they were good musicians, and gave El Patio live Mexican sounds between waiting on customers. They also helped George build the restaurant, doing most of the construction work themselves as the place slowly expanded. They remained part of the scene until the oldest entered medical school. I think two of them became doctors.
The two dining rooms flanked a mini-atrium with a stained-glass skylight and a fountain. Later, the size of the place doubled, with a nightclub-like dining room in the back.
The chef was Señora Rodriguez herself, and George was a good cook too. The food they put out was a far cry from the spartan tamale-and-taco platters New Orleans diners were accustomed to getting. All the dishes were buffed to a high degree of polish, and made for a grand feast. It included all the high notes of Mexican cookery–even complex, three-dozen-ingredient mole sauces.
Here was enough seafood for building a serious appetizer course beyond the usual nachos (which were, come to think of it, very good). Few restaurants had ceviche in those days, and most of those were upscale places. El Patio’s was fresh and fine. But they had something even better: seafood-stuffed squid with a cream sauce, a dish that would be perfectly at home in a much fancier restaurant. A second calamari dish was nearly as good, with its spicy red salsa.
Or you could start with black bean soup with chopped fresh onions and cilantro. I don’t think I’ve ever had better. Here also was the first avocado and tortilla soup in my experience–light, flavorful, and aromatic with herbs.
In the entree department we found yet more fresh seafood. Trout, red snapper and shrimp came out in a variety of successful preparations.
And then there were the rice dishes. Arroz con calamares (with squid again, in a sauce made of its ink) arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), and a massive platter of paella with lobster and chicken, served for two but enough for four.
El Patio made a blue-ribbon molé poblano—the peppery, bitter chocolate sauce. This is where I fell in love with molé sauce, which I consider in a tie with bearnaise as the world’s best. It was incomparably good on roast chicken or cheese enchiladas.
Those enchiladas finally bring us around to the wide world of tortilla dishes. While other, less common parts of the menu were more interesting, El Patio also does a good job with the more familiar stuff like tacos, enchiladas, flautas, empanadas, chiles rellenos, etc., combining them into several different platters.
Fajitas were just beginning to be popular in El Patio’s middle years. Everybody was turned on by the sizzling platters, which always seemed more about show than taste.
The Rodriguez family kept the momentum going all the way through dessert. Here was the city’s best flan, made with Mexican vanilla. Bananas a Fuego was their version of Foster. Also in flames was an amazing layered after-dinner cocktail whose components seemed to be erupting from deep down.
El Patio had a few persistent problems. It was a block off Williams Boulevard and not very visible. Directions to it included “turn off Williams at the Taco Bell,” an instruction that took its toll on El Patio’s image. When the sons went off to pursue their careers, the restaurant started downhill. George was ill for a time, and soon after the place was being run by someone else. Then it was sold. None of the successors lasted long, even when they were good.
But the memories of El Patio at its peak continue to put a smile on my face.