French Quarter: 1141 Decatur
Uptown: 7537 Maple
Late 1970s-late 2000s
The 1100 block of Decatur Street was the first bohemia in the French Quarter for the Baby Boom generation. With Molly’s and The Abbey on its uptown end, in the 1970s it swas a hangout for people who lived or worked in the French Quarter.
In the restaurant revolution of the early 1980s, the block became a good place to eat. At the end of the decade it was a restaurant row, with French Market Seafood, Greco’s, the Mediterranean Cafe, Cafe Sbisa, Molly’s at the Market, Coop’s Place, G&E Courtyard Grill, Maximo’s, Margaritaville, and the Decatur House.
But the first modern restaurant on the block was Vera Cruz. With lots of greenery, a pleasant well-worn quality, and a style of Mexican cooking not seen elsewhere around New Orleans, it attracted a dedicated following of regulars. They came in often enough to have favorite tables and waiters.
Vera Cruz arrived at a time when Mexican dining was at a crossroads. Most of the old family places from the 1950s (El Ranchito and Castillo’s, to name two) were either gone or soon to be gone. Meanwhile, totally Americanized Mexican places–some of them national chains–moved in. Chi-Chi’s, Cu-Co’s, and Dos Gringos were typical of the time.
Compared with those plastic places, Vera Cruz seemed adventuresome and real. For those who had never been to Texas, let alone Mexico, its food came across as authentic. By today’s better informed standards, it would be laughable. But innovators have to start somewhere, and Vera Cruz’s food was a learning experience for most of its customers.
It helped that the young, friendly waiters were frank about the food. They’d warn you against advanced peculiarities, while also waxing appropriately enthusiastic about dishes like the terrific mesquite-roasted pork loin, loaded with garlic, sliced into pieces with some nice hard edges.
Fajitas was just beginning to appear in these parts. Vera Cruz was one of the local pioneers of that exciting dish. They grilled chicken, beef, and pork over mesquite while sizzling peppers and onions on the hot plate. You rolled all this up in flour tortillas with pico de gallo. (My 1985 review explained that pico de gallo is a coarse relish of onions, cilantro, tomatoes and herbs, but you know that now.) The fajitas came in a big platter for two people. That fact and the attention drawn by the sizzling plates created moments when everybody in the place was eating fajitas.
The menu went on to include well-made versions of the standard Mexican combination platters. They used more pork than most Mexican places did, always to good effect. Dishes that had strong similarities to salads were all over the menu. One of these was an odd, popular tostada called the India: a tortilla with seemingly everything in the house on top.
On the other hand, much of the menu was disappointing. I never thought much of their guacamole, for example. The beans–prepared juicy instead of in the more familiar refritos style–were nothing more than filler.
The menu at Vera Cruz didn’t change much until near the end of its run in the 2000s. By that time, enough Mexican restaurants with more adventuresome menus had surpassed it. The French Quarter original restaurant closed first. A renovation of both food and environment at the Maple Street Vera Cruz kept it going a few years longer. By then, the college crowd knew better than this, and went elsewhere to find it.