Creole and Cajun food never appealed much to me until I ate it in Louisiana, just as Texas-style barbecue never seemed like a necessary part of life until I had brisket at a shack outside Dallas, and just as I never liked green algae in my smoothie until I had it fresh in a San Francisco juice bar. (Mmmmm, slimy.)
Some things don't translate that well across state lines, or they're translated so badly, so much of the time, that you lose the urge to keep trying.
One of the most mistreated of Louisiana's foods is the po' boy, which in the rest of the country could be any old fried shrimp or oyster sandwich on some kind of roll with shredded lettuce and mayo. The bread rarely has the soft/crackle magic of the bread baked in Louisiana specifically for po' boy purposes. The sandwich is rarely “dressed,” as it would be in New Orleans, with the correct combination of lettuce, tomato, pickles and Blue Plate mayo, and there are hardly ever options other than fried seafood to choose from.
Fried oysters, bread and mayonnaise is an inherently delicious combination, so the results are seldom as horrifying as, say, the blunt, salty sludge that passes as gumbo in most non-Louisiana establishments. But still: Once you've had the real thing — once you've stood sweating in a line that snakes around a worn room, and chosen from seafood but also sausage and roast beef and turkey breast — it's hard to go back to those sad approximations.
Recently opened Little Jewel is a slice-of-life establishment, in that it aims to bring the soul of New Orleans directly to the streets of Chinatown, Los Angeles. I am generally wary of such places, those that refuse to bend, just a little, to the sway of the surroundings, that hope to play a transportive trick and have you step through a magic door into another world. But I have to say, Little Jewel's chef and owner Marcus Christiana-Beniger seems to have pulled it off.
Zydeco, jazz or soul music plays loudly over the stereo. The room is set up as a deli and grocery, the shelves so jam-packed with foods particular to the region, it's as if they were planted there by the New Orleans tourism commission. This might now be the premier place in Los Angeles to buy Southern staples — grits, hot sauces, crowder peas, Steen's cane syrup. To Little Jewel's credit, it also serves as a true neighborhood store, with Top Ramen, cleaning supplies and pet food on the shelves, condoms and deodorant behind the cash register.
But the real reason people are here, the reason the tables in the dining area beside and behind the grocery shelves are packed at lunchtime and almost packed at dinner, is the massive, 10-inch po' boys. Christiana-Beniger brings in bread daily from Leidenheimer Baking Company in New Orleans, assuring the right softness, the right crust. And he offers far more than just fried seafood. You can get a chaurice po' boy, patties of spiced Creole sausage similar to (and likely derived from) Spanish chorizo but left uncured. It's hard to find even in New Orleans. Meatball, blackened chicken, even french fry po' boys are available.
If you're a purist and just want that fried oyster sandwich, Little Jewel has a damn fine version, the ratio of lettuce, mayo (Blue Plate, of course) and pickles to bread and seafood exactly right. The cornmeal breading on the oysters — and shrimp for that matter — is a little hard, spicy and overpowering for my taste, but you don't really notice it unless you take the seafood off the sandwich and sample it alone. The alchemy of the whole is practically faultless.
A New Orleans roast beef po' boy is a thing of sloppy glory, the beef shredded and doused with gravy (at some po' boy shops, you can even get a gravy sandwich, made with “debris,” the little bits and pieces that fall off when the meat is carved). Here it's a little less glorious, a little dry in places, even. The same cannot be said for the cochon de lait po' boy, a mess of pulled pork so juicy, so lightly spicy and set off by its dressing, I would have to call it the best Southern-style barbecue sandwich in Los Angeles. That it is not a style many of us might recognize is beside the point. It kicks ass.
I struggled to tear myself away from the po' boy offerings at Little Jewel, but it was worth venturing to the other sandwiches, particularly the muffuletta, which is made on the proper, huge round of Italian sesame-seeded bread and layered with olive relish that Christiana-Beniger makes in-house.
There's a list of daily specials that highlight other New Orleans dishes, such as a “gumbolaya” that mixes the two iconic soupy dishes, and isn't as deep and delicate and complex as the best of either, but still salty, spicy and satisfying.
Christiana-Beniger makes boudin and other sausages in-house that you can buy to-go from the deli counter, but some days he also fries up boudin balls and serves them with remoulade and creole mustard. “I'd eat them with all of this,” he advises, throwing in some packets of hot sauce for good measure. The oddly creamy paste of savory rice and pork liver is the best rendition I've had outside of Louisiana.
Some dishes fall into the category of authentic but uninteresting for anything but nostalgia's sake. The W.O.P. salad, for instance, is really just a bunch of romaine lettuce with a hard-boiled egg and undetectable anchovies.
There are a ton of desserts, mostly very sugary and in some cases quite boozy, and none that I'd save too much room for when there's a dripping pig sandwich to be finished.
Order from the cash register and your food comes up at the counter in front of the kitchen a few minutes later, at which time Christiana-Beniger calls out your order over a speaker that blasts throughout the deli but also onto the street outside. If the kitchen slows down a little later, the chef might come out and sit at your table, give recommendations about what to order next time, chat about when he's going to start serving beignets for breakfast (soon) or drop cryptic hints about his grand plans for the future. I couldn't pin him down on the details, but my money is on a full-service restaurant next door, with a bar and a more wide-ranging take on the food of his hometown.
If what Christiana-Beniger is serving at Little Jewel is any indication, any expansion of his vision is most welcome.
See also: Our photo gallery from Little Jewel
LITTLE JEWEL OF NEW ORLEANS | 207 Ord St., Chinatown | (213) 620-0461 | littlejewel.la | 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily | Sandwiches, $5.50-$16 | No alcohol served | Street parking