Cuisine usually gets left out of the glory and glee of Mardi Gras season. This is the time of year, after all, when even people who normally fuss over their meals gladly gird themselves for a day on the parade route with cold fried chicken, deli meat gripped between gummy triangles of white bread and whatever meat-on-a-stick the nearest vending trailer is dishing out. Mardi Gras is a time for eating on your feet, and it usually is not pretty.
But at a certain Uptown corner near Tulane University, Mardi Gras is the high season for a different type of street food. Tucked into a complex of businesses aimed squarely at college students, the tiny take-out shop Crepes a la Cart serves savory and sweet crepes to people who are happy to wolf them down on the sidewalk and get back to the party.
The posted hours are 10:30 a.m. to midnight, but the place usually just stays open until people stop coming in. It isn't unusual for the crepe grills to be busy until 4 a.m. or so on a weekend night. During the height of Mardi Gras, from the Wednesday before Fat Tuesday until Ash Wednesday, the shop is open 24 hours.
Crepes a la Cart's neighbors have a lot to do with its late hours. The shop is dead in the center of frat row for Tulane and Loyola universities and it shares a wall with the Boot, a tavern that features three-for-one drink specials. The equation of young people, late hours, a rocking bar and a case of the munchies is simple math. What is surprising, however, is the type of food Crepes a la Cart has turned so many of these late-night revealers on to. Truly, a crepe stuffed with melted cheddar and bacon has something of the midnight appeal of a gooey quesadilla, but the savory fillings here are as likely to include raw mushrooms, baby spinach and broccoli.
Prices range from $3.50 for the most basic crepes to $9 for the most fully stuffed example, which uses about half the savory ingredients in the shop. One stuffed crepe makes a light lunch -- the rough equivalent of half a po-boy -- but it's common to see people ordering three at once and consuming them all on the spot.
Some of the best offerings are the Crescent City crepe and the crepe Italian. The Crescent City is made with deli-sliced roast beef, fresh mushrooms, red onions, Swiss cheese and a sharp, creamy horseradish sauce. I have to wonder how good this would be were it made with sloppy debris-style roast beef and gravy, like a po-boy, but this is one satisfying crepe as is. The crepe Italian is essentially a crepe pizza, with a smooth tomato sauce, a ton of melted mozzarella, slices of fresh tomato and a heavy shake of garlic powder. Eating one outside of a bar at 2 a.m. feels as natural as slugging back a couple of slices from a pizzeria, albeit with a pancake taking the place of crust.
The Florentine packs raw spinach, crunchy red onion, thin slices of chicken, tangy Swiss cheese and a few squirts of a good, herbaceous dill and chive cream sauce. The crepe a la Montagne has a nice mixture of olive oil and cream with chicken, garlic, fresh mushrooms and white asparagus.
That white asparagus turns up quite a bit here, but it is fancier than it is tasty. The albino spears taste wet and waxy and conventional, crisp, green asparagus would be much better. I also wished for some spicier ingredients, like hot pepper rings or even hot sauce.
As it is, though, the employees have their work cut out for them making a menu of more than 50 selections, plus whatever oddball customized jobs people dream up on the way through the door.
Dessert crepes use a great deal of fresh fruit and Nutella, the hazelnut chocolate spread that its many devotees regard as highly as Popeye does spinach. These can be as simple and wonderful as chocolate and strawberries wrapped up together to crepes combining bits of angel food cake, fruit, nuts, marmalade, coconut and a small dose of rum or Bailey's Irish Cream.
The ice cream crepes like the turtle sundae rendition are particularly spectacular. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is rolled in the hot, finished crepe, the layers of which are thick with melted chocolate and crunchy with chopped pecans. Other dessert crepes have the palate-bending pleasure of sour cream, sugar and tart, fresh raspberries all vying for your attention.
The uniting factor for all the sweet or savory choices is the hot-off-the-griddle delight of crepes made before your eyes. Travelers to Paris often return with stories of eating crepes made at little carts in the street, but the inspiration for Crepes a; la Cart came after Kevin and Andrea Merlin visited the ski town of Breckenridge, Colo. The young couple discovered an outdoor crepe vendor entertaining passersby and luring customers as he ladled up crepe batter and piled on the fillings. They wagered New Orleans could use something similar and opened their shop in 2004.
This is not hibachi table-level entertainment, but it is fun to watch the young men and women behind the counter cooking crepes. It takes a deft hand to make a useable crepe on the first try while the orders stack up by the minute. Whether they're scooping ice cream into a sundae crepe for a little girl at noon or obliging loud requests for extra cheese at 2 a.m., the attitudes of employees here are always on the sweet side.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Crepes a la Cart offers more than 50 types of sweet and savory crepes.