There is an ongoing debate I have with one of my favorite callers to the radio show. It regards the merits of one of our city’s most beloved restaurants - Mandina’s. I have been to Mandina’s only a handful of times, which will suffice. He is wildly passionate about the place, which is so very inconsistent with his dining proclivities otherwise as to be suspicious. We finally got to the bottom of his enthusiasm the other day, when I posed a single question to the radio audience after my last food from there. It was: Explain Mandina’s.
He called immediately and satisfied the query. There will be no further questions. He explained that he went to a place in Chalmette every day for lunch with his family when he was a boy. Enough said. As the delightful movie Ratatouille proved when the gruff restaurant critic shrunk back into his adorable 8-year-old boy self when a bite of ratatouille reminded him of his mother’s, food is emotional. It doesn’t have to be good.
And, apologies to all I will now offend, the food at Mandina’s is just not that good.
The first time I went I left truly puzzled. Points to it for being the best example of what I refer to as “Nawlins Dawhlin,” but that is not something I consider a plus. The food is just as cliche. Perfectly adequate and nothing more. This is a mecca for easy New Orleans food. Batter it up and fry it.
On other visits I have had the meatballs and spaghetti which was very good in that old-fashioned way, miscellaneous salads, poor boys, and a fried seafood platter. Tom had the turtle soup, and he is a fan.
The fried seafood is plentiful, crispy and greaseless, served over fries and the ubiquitous mid 20th century toast to absorb grease. I love the fried crab ball, which is slightly larger than a golf ball but smaller than a baseball, and is a good example of the stuffed crab essentials. Plenty of crabmeat.
Mandina’s is masterful at stuffing things. The Wednesday special bell peppers is memorable, and the eggplant with shrimp, crabmeat and ham seems an odd pairing but is tasty.
The club is classic. What should be a home run here is the Meuniere, but instead it is heavy, dark, and gloppy.
A few days ago Tom and I went to the North Shore version of Mandina’s. It can be argued that this is not truly Mandina’s, which it is not. But it is a faithful representation of the original run by a thoughtful,hands-on franchisee with many years of experience owning a franchise (Zea in New Mexico) before closing it to move home. He approached the Mandina’s owners who trusted him enough to reproduce the recipes faithfully. The menus are exactly like the ones in Mid-City, as is the food. The vibe on the north shore is utterly inconsistent with the flagship, but fans of the food don’t have to cross the lake to get it.
Mandina’s sits in the back of a nondescript cluster of businesses off Hwy 22 in Mandeville. The space is cavernous, and much too dark for my taste. The fact that owner Frank Marcello has kept the place busy all these years is a testament to how faithfully he executes the food.
We started with the garlic bread, which is excellent. The yellow grease sludge that so saturated the bread as to sort of smush it made me wonder if it was margarine, because that would make sense. The waitress explained that it is a half-and-half mixture with butter, which gets melted down and mixed with spices and the garlic. This sounds bad but is just the opposite. Garlic, and the “extra” flavors that made it special must be the spices she referenced. A pile of Mandina’s meatballs and spaghetti with this garlic bread and some peas would make this a tasty meal from the mid 20th century. And that is not a diss. Nostalgic comfort food is welcome by everyone, I think.
I also had to have the onion rings, which seem to go to every table. I’m a thin string fan, though medium is okay. These were an inch thick and fresh cut, crispy and greaseless. Having had them, I understand why a batch seems destined for every table.
I also got a spinach and artichoke dip with crawfish, just because I try to eat spinach whenever I can. I didn’t expect this to be good particularly, and I was right. Furthermore, the bowtie pasta that accompanies the dip looked like a pile of fried sweet potatoes. My thanks to Mandina’s for presenting me with fried stuff I would have eaten had it not been so unappealing. Change the oil please. The dip was a gloppy mess of cheese and spinach studded with ample crawfish. I ate it anyway, because what is ever wrong with melted cheese, artichokes, and spinach?
Mandina’s was probably doing daily specials before anyone else. The beef stew over rice with peas called to me, but I seemed to recall that the fried chicken was popular. It came with fries that I knew would be ordinary so I subbed it out for red beans. Tom was excited to see Veal Marsala, so he ordered that. Mandina’s has an absurdly large menu that keeps you busy for a while simply reading it.
The fried chicken was plump, generous, greaseless and super crunchy. I love crunchy fried stuff as well as the next person, but I don’t see a need for double battering, which this seemed to be. There can be too much of a good thing. Fried chicken with a hard shell can be distracting, as this was. It was also salty, another “too much of a good thing.” The red beans had the look and taste of the basic and ordinary New Orleans red beans, chunky with meat.
Tom was thrilled with his Marsala, which was generously studded with fresh sliced portobello mushrooms. The smallish piece of paneed veal was served over angel hair pasta, and the sauce was sweet, not wine-infused sweet but sweet. He loved it.
Since this was Mandina’s and Tom is Tom, bread pudding was in order. It came as a gooey pile, but nicely drizzled with caramel sauce, a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of a large square. This was actually very nice. A good cinnamon flavor, and a cakey texture, with a welcome contrast of creamy cold ice cream, I get its popularity. Definitely.
Mandina’s is not bad food. It is ordinary food for people who want the nostalgia that is a cornerstone of our local culture. And the servers are part of the story. Our server on the north shore was not typically Mandina’s. She was young and efficient, but not especially chatty. At the flagship the waitresses are like a concerned old aunt, invested in your order. There is comfort in all of this. And who does not need comfort in these times?