Really, though, don’t you think it’s hard to find food that just stops you in your tracks? If you are a regular diner, it’s all pretty good. Or very good. Sometimes really good. But every once in a while, usually a great while, you take a bite and sit back and say, “Oh my goodness, this is spectacular!” That’s what happened to us last night, in the most unlikely place.
We pass Hambone (yes, I know, the name is ridiculously beneath such food) on Girod St in sleepy “downtown” Mandeville. It’s an old house that used to be a tearoom. The red tin roof pops it out as a commercial space, also the cluster of large picnic tables, a tetherball game, and an old truck. In the front yard. Yes, an old truck. It’s a peculiar place, maybe because we have long since left the world of young kids. The place reflects the personal lifestyle of owners Luke and Marci Hidalgo, who worked together in some of the A-listiest restaurants in New Orleans, (Galatoire’s Commander’s Palace, and Coquette) before settling on the family-friendly north shore.
Inside, the place is homey but spartan. Not exactly comfortable, but hip enough and utilitarian enough for the young families that make up its core base of customers. That base is growing, though, as word gets out about what is being served here.
This was not our first visit. That one was a while ago, and for brunch. That visit was the third of two attempts when we found it closed. The brunch was fine but not exceptional, mainly because we had no idea what to expect.
But last night we went with no expectations, and the food carried us away. The menu is smallish, and belies what will be placed before you. Potato salad does not hint that this is the potato salad of your life. A wedge salad conjures up an image of the usual wedge. The detail of flavors converging here to thrill your palate cannot be picked up from the menu description.
We started with the biscuits, which come on a little board with a peanut butter jam. This looked strange, until ML smelled one of the slices and commented that it reminded her of the pancakes we used to have. It certainly did. She opened one, and smoke emanated from the heat, The smoke cleared to reveal a cake-like slice of baked goodness that ML declared the best biscuit she had ever had. They were toasted on each side with a melted butter crust and were just divine.
Tom got the Oysters Marci, which came in a skillet and didn’t actually look all that good, but they were. A dark dome sat atop each of the four oyster shells, and was more of a stuffing of caramelized fennel, bacon, and mushrooms.
I got the gumbo with potato salad and asked for the potato salad on the side. The idea of serving gumbo this way has never appealed to me. And this time, I’m glad I didn’t just leave off the potato salad. Luke Hidalgo is very big into pickling vegetables, and jars of this are part of the restaurant’s decor. This guy elevates the lowly okra to superstar status. His potato salad had chopped pickled okra. The piquant flavor it imparted and the crunch-but-not-too-crunchy texture was outstanding. Loved this.
Next to this potato salad sat a very large bowl of gumbo, which was billed as the Hambone Gumbo. It included gulf shrimp, collards, and ham hocks. Another stop-in-your-tracks flavor profile. I got this just to get something, but couldn’t stop eating it. An unbelievable deal at $9.50, this is a meal unto itself. Very thick and creamy, this combination of flavors is just sensational. Maybe the best I have had.
Tom got a pickled plate next, which included deviled eggs and various pickled things with Saltine crackers. The mention of deviled eggs turns me off, but Tom thought this very good as well. It had mustard seeds as a garnish, and of course, pickled okra.
And then a very large Wedge Salad with shrimp arrived at the table. I asked that the balsamic drizzle be omitted, but now I’m curious what other flavor explosion might have been created.
This was, first of all, huge, and stunning in presentation. But when I tasted it I just couldn’t believe the sheer amount of flavor that can be extracted from cold vegetables and oils.
Shrimp Remoulade Blue Wedge Salad has marinated tomatoes, shaved farm vegetables, buttermilk vinaigrette, blue cheese crumbles, and balsamic drizzle. These are things seen all over, but I have never tasted anything even remotely as spectacular as the combination of these things here.
I was really full from the gumbo plate, but I just couldn’t stop eating this. It would have been sacrilegious to not finish something this special.
This is gushing, and I realize that. And maybe it was that we went with lower expectations than we should have had. Or maybe this goofy little house with the benches for seats and plywood tables in a sleepy little neighborhood is actually where you will find that rare really exciting food that stops you in your tracks. You’ll just have to go see for yourself.
544 Girod St Mandeville
Wed-Sat Lunch 11-3 Dinner 5-9