At the close of the Food Show (airs 2-4 weekdays on 990 AM) last Friday, Patty mentioned a gathering of radio people which takes place with some regularity. We made the trek all the way to Chalmette’s iconic restaurant, Rocky and Carlo’s, the perfect setting for such an event.
Driving the 510 is a trek back into another world. Signs for fresh shrimp mean really fresh, like right off a boat. Gas pumps to fill boats and boats and shacks for selling shrimp dot a landscape of beautiful nothingness. There is a peaceful tranquility and salt-of-the-earth vibe here. Even the haunting ruins of the ill-fated Jazzland add an interesting punctuation to all this vast Louisiana.
Heading south on 510 as it becomes Paris Rd, the scene gives way to Chalmette, which is suburban but also industrial. The famous, or infamous, Rocky and Carlo’s is located a block west of the intersection of Paris Rd. and St. Bernard Hwy. Acres of a refinery sit across the street.
I have been to Rocky and Carlo’s a handful of times, probably as much as Tom, and he covered food for a living. He was vocally dismissive of Rocky and Carlo’s for most of his career, though I don’t understand why. It is the quintessential example of what I call N’awlins Dahlin’, and that sounds but is not dismissive. New Orleans is a truly unique place in many ways, but none more than the way people relate to each other. It is real. No pretensions. Take it or leave it. Therein lies its charm. Rocky and Carlo’s embodies this spirit in ways that few other places do. Maybe it’s the service style, which is cafeteria line, from an era before anyone every dreamt up the term fast-casual. The people behind that line are pure New Orleans, welcoming, helpful, hospitable.
A quick glance around the joint, and I do mean joint, reveals a vast open space with claw machines on one end, and counters selling kitsch on another. The remainder of that wall is the checkout at the termination point of the cafeteria line.
On this line is every imaginable concoction of New Orleans food that works on a line like this. The rest of the enormous menu comes from the kitchen in the back. There is Paneed meat, jambalaya (too red for me) meatballs and spaghetti, stuffed artichoke, lasagna, smothered cabbage, red beans, and the famous macaroni and cheese beside red gravy. In an adjacent case sat two sad salads in an otherwise empty cold case, as if anyone going to Rocky and Carlo’s would waste stomach space on salad.
We got a few things from the line and more from the back. Fried chicken came with a gigantic pile of the mac and cheese and a side of red gravy, which I saved for my daughter. They were kind enough to oblige my request for the hard crusty cheese on top. And Tom got a dressed roast beef poor boy, which was large enough to come in four sections. From the line we got lasagna and red beans and rice.
Tom has often sneered at places that serve large portions, suggesting the extra food is offered as compensation for quality. That roast beef poor boy was large, yes, but it was really very good. The roast beef was sliced just so, piled with fresh dressings, alongside a gravy with a good roast beef taste.
My fried chicken was not so large. It was normal. The chicken was smallish, which Tom has always preferred and I agree with him. Smaller, less bloated chickens are definitely better. There were four pieces, or a half-chicken. It was golden brown, hot, greaseless, with exactly the proper amount of batter. Pretty much how mom would have made it back in the day. This was a treat.
The red beans were nothing special, coming in a large bowl with white rice. This was a “side” that could have fed two people. They were like Tom and I both prefer, defined beans in a mass that is not soupy mush. The flavor, unfortunately was nothing special.
The same is true for the lasagna, which could have benefitted from more cheese and more sauce. It was sort of a dried pile of lasagna noodles with a decent amount of meat. This may owe to its presence on a cafeteria line. The flavor was fine, and it could have been doctored into something much better with the addition of the missing ingredients.
I wonder how much mac and cheese Rocky and Carlo’s sells each day. Its most famous dish is worthy of its reputation. Here is a gigantic vat of perciatelli noodles blanketed in orange cheddar and held together by a cream sauce with more cheese, which becomes sort of a delicious cement in cooking. This is a not a creamy pasta. It is a brick of sharp cheddar and noodles. The perciatelli pasta makes it special fun.
As for the famed red gravy, it is basic: cooked for enough but not excessive hours, it is devoid of anything flavoring it that is noticeable, like meat, vegetables, or herbs. What it does have is a smooth tomato taste and a pretty red, not crimson, color. Its purity is its charm, to me anyway.
All of this food came with the requisite french bread slices and little crocks of butter, a nice, old fashioned touch that would have alarmed me before I started making Tom French Toast with all the throwaway bread. I was grateful to have it. As was Tom when he ate it for breakfast this morning.
The event took place in a very large private room that I imagine stays pretty busy at an iconic place like this. It does not have the local vibe of the busier main room filled with families and people meeting people. And it does not have the lines that I guess remain in place all day.
Rocky and Carlo’s has been a pillar of the St. Bernard community for 57 years. Everyone knows it. Everyone loves it. Even snooty Tom, now that he has mellowed in his later years.