Altamira, Ancestor Of Lola's
January 12, 2016 12:12
Warehouse District: 701 Convention Center Blvd
The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition held in New Orleans took place a hundred years after the Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884. The earlier expo left behind many wonders that live on to this day--notably Audubon Park, where the 1884 event took place.
In contrast, the 1984 event--the last World's Fair anywhere--is remembered fondly only by the most dedicated homers in our local population. For most of us, the Fair was a bit embarrassing. It ran out of gas after six months, leaving behind a Warehouse District bereft of most of its old industry. It would be many years before the area began to morph into the chic hotel-restaurant-convention area it is now.
The 1984 Expo had many restaurants, most of them highlighting the cuisines of the countries that built pavilions there. Almost none of those eateries went on after the fair ended. Of those, only Altamira survives to the present day--but not in that location nor under that name.
Altamira and its owner Angel Miranda specialized in the food of Spain. It was not the first to do so, nor would it be the last. Spanish food should be an popular style of cooking in New Orleans, a longtime former Spanish colony. But it keeps getting confused with Mexican and other Latin American cuisines, which are different in almost every way except language from Spanish cooking.
Angel, a native of Seville, did everything he could to make Altamira's cooking unambiguously Spanish, and he did a good job of it. If only his customers had latched onto his mission. His Spanish tortillas (potato pancakes, really), arroz con pollo and paella may have been a little too authentic for local tastes. People kept complaining that it wasn't spicy enough. But Spanish food isn't known for chile peppers.
Anyone whose palate could work around this misunderstanding were rewarded quickly. They'd start with tapas, the sub-appetizer giblets served with wine and drinks in Spain. At Altamira, the tapas included marinated mussels--almost unheard of in New Orleans in those days, and wonderful.
Soup was a reasonable next course. The gazpacho was smooth in texture and made with bread. It wasn't chunky the way most of the few gazpachos around New Orleans were. Despite its creamy appearance, its taste was right on the money. Hot garlic soup had the advantage of being completely unknown in New Orleans, so it was more readily accepted.
Looking over the review I wrote about Altamira in 1985, I begin to wonder how its food would do today. All the aforementioned dishes are found around town. But what about the the big baking dish full of broiled veal kidneys? Probably a little too Spanish for most chefs, let alone diners. (They were delicious, by the way. In the 1980s, we saw kidneys almost make it onto many menus around town.)
Altamira's best entrees were the various grilled fish, cooked whole and served with a cold vinaigrette, peppers and onions—light and refreshing. The roast pork, chicken, and beef all come out in very large portions, abetted with a hint of garlic and a broad hint of olive oil.
You could not have a Spanish restaurant without rice dishes. That endeavor here is represented by paella, the ancestor of jambalaya, made here with chicken, shrimp, scallops, and fish, scented with saffron. Any of these would be enough to feed several people.
There was a homemade sangria for washing things down. For dessert, the classic flan found almost everywhere Spanish is spoken came in perfect mellowness.
The dining room was much more inviting than the rather stark exterior of the reclaimed warehouse the restaurant occupies. Service is also better than one would expect. Altamira was especially popular on Fridays and Saturdays, when Angel brought in flamenco dancers.
But nothing he could do would save Altamira from the fate of all the other World's Fair restaurants. It shut down after only a couple of years. Angel reappeared on the scene with a tiny new restaurant on Esplanade Avenue near the cemeteries. Christened Lola's, it became the only long-running Spanish restaurant in New Orleans history. Angel passed away a few years ago, but--managed by his family--Lola's continues to pack the house with its Andalusian food.