The Bean Pot
Old Jefferson: 4100 Jefferson Highway
Riverbend: 8117 Maple Street
Chalmette: E. Judge Perez Drive
Ignacio “Chico” Vazquez ran utterly unique Mexican restaurants during three decades around New Orleans. Neither he nor his cantinas were ever prominent. But his fans were so devoted that I’m still asked where Chico’s cooking these days, even though its years since he passed on.
Chico was born July 31, 1927 in Aguas Calientes in central Mexico. He came to the United States soon enough to serve in the US Army in the Korean War. He moved to New Orleans in the 1960s, and spent most of the forty years he spent here in his crusade to get people to eat authentic Mexican food.
Time well spent. Chico’s Mexican restaurants never looked to the marketplace to decide his menu. Instead, he served the kind of Mexican food he liked, and tried to talk his customers into liking it, too.
Chico could really talk. Every dish on his menu had a story. If you expressed even a little interest, he would flesh the story out, often adding tales not much related to food, but always fascinating. He’d talk to you as long as you would listen, and as long as he had the time.
Which was most of the time. None of the Bean Pot’s several successive locations were ever especially busy. Which was a good thing, since most of the time Chico was nearly the entire staff, doing both the cooking and the serving.
Which would lead to one of his main topics: Why don’t more people come here to eat real Mexican food, instead of all that Americanized stuff?
It was a good question. And it had a good answer. Most people who went to the Bean Pot expecting what they had been fooled into thinking was Mexican food by the chain restaurants would be at least puzzled by Chico’s real deal.
Another explanation was obvious, but you’d keep it to yourself. The Bean Pot, in all its locations, was atmospherically challenged. Not dirty, but really worn out and cheaply furnished. We Orleanians don’t seem to mind that too much (think Uglesich’s and Charlie’s Steak House). But it prevented a lot of people from going (or staying) there for the first time. That, plus the unique menu, was too much for the unadventuresome.
The first time I met Chico, he was in a former drive-up burger joint in front of the Jeff Drive-In Theater. (Long gone, that complex was across Jefferson Highway from Haydel’s Bakery.) I had just begin to write about food. Chico was cooking–and raving about–cabrito. Barbecued baby goat. It was the most exotic thing I’d ever eaten up to that time. The next time, Chico said he was having a hard time finding goat meat locally. “In Texas and of course in Mexico you can get cabrito everywhere,” he explained. “In Louisiana, I just found out it’s against the law!” He was as disappointed as I was.
Chico’s menu was largely an invitation to mix and match various proteins (chicken, beef, pork, crabmeat, shrimp) with what he called his “gravies.” Chico was a master at making sauces. He had the familiar chili and ranchero sauces. And mole, which you might expect if you’d ever been in a real Mexican place.
But he didn’t stop there. He made an avocado gravy and a tomatillo gravy–this at a time when few Orleanians had ever heard of tomatillos, the little green tomato-like fruits from Mexico. He explained that tomatillo gravy was very good with crabmeat enchiladas. Those who tried it became fans for life, even making the trek out to Chalmette to his predictably stark (and final) restaurant there.
Chalmette was the last stop for Chico. It seemed to me the people in St. Bernard Parish took to him and his shabby café more enthusiastically than people from other parts of the city. It would not be until the influx of Hispanic people and taco trucks after Katrina before we’d taste anything like what he cooked.