You might not expect to find one of the best redfish sandwiches in town at a barbecue restaurant and breakfast joint. You also might not expect salty crumbles of feta cheese and crisp bacon on that sandwich. But when it comes to surprises, these don't really compare to the experience of J'Anita's proprietor Craig Giesecke since Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, he ran a quietly successful company by Bayou St. John that supplied specialty smoked cheeses to grocery stores around the region. But today, thanks to an abiding interest in smoked meats, the providential pre-Katrina purchase of a trailer-mounted barbecue smoker and a family that shares his entrepreneurial zeal, Giesecke is at the helm of this endearingly quirky café in the Lower Garden District.
The levee failures ruined Giesecke's cheese business, but the mobile barbecue smoker survived Katrina at the family's Irish Channel home. He had previously used it to cook up big family feasts, but while looking for ways to earn a living in the aftermath, he decided to bring the trailer up to Lakeview and sell barbecue to the demolition crews working in the ravaged neighborhood, where lunch otherwise meant a trip to the handful of reopened restaurants downtown or the jam-packed eateries in Jefferson Parish. He, his wife Kim and their son Stu set up shop on the Canal Boulevard neutral ground near Harrison Avenue and kept contractors fed for months.
Giesecke later went on to work in the kitchen at Dick and Jenny's for a while as the family started crafting the barbecue-based business plan that resulted in J'Anita's. The name is a customized contraction of Jim and Anita, the names of his late parents, and the new café opened late in 2007 in a small Magazine Street storefront with bare brick walls hung with colorful local art.
Giesecke came up with the fish sandwich recipe years back while working in a Florida restaurant, where he used locally abundant grouper. For J'Anita's, he changed things up with redfish and got a line on airy, crusty ciabatta from La Boulangerie bakery a few miles up Magazine Street. He stuffs it with two grilled fillets of fish and adds feta, bacon and a dose of Caesar salad dressing. Pungent, salty, a little messy and huge, it's just about everything you could want in a sandwich.
Most of the food here is straightforward, if sometimes a bit odd. You may well find a scattering of animal crackers on your plate, for instance, whether you order an omelet or a barbecue platter. The barbecue sauce is unusually piquant and tastes very much like ketchup mixed with horseradish. Fortunately, the meat does not need much help from this ersatz cocktail sauce. I prefer the brisket to the pulled pork, thanks mainly to a thin layer of light char that adds varying texture to the otherwise tender strands of beef.
Both the beef and pork are pretty light in the smoke department, however. The brisket is not in the same league with the redolent beef at the Joint at the bottom of the Bywater or the divine swine smoked so reverently over imported Kentucky hickory at Hillbilly Bar-B-Q in River Ridge. But the Bywater and River Ridge can seem very far away if you're in the Lower Garden District and get a craving for barbecue. J'Anita's will certainly get the job done.
While this is not extraordinary barbecue, J'Anita's is an extraordinary value any way you approach it. On my first lunch visit, three of us spent a grand total of $25 on a very filling lunch, which happened to include the $8 fish sandwich, the most expensive item on the menu. Parents with children in tow can feed them for $3.25. The brisket and pork barbecue plates are $6.50 and come with a choice of two sides. One of those could " and should " be a generous serving of gumbo, with a dark but thin roux and plenty of okra and sausage. The maque choux is another good side, though the bland coleslaw left me flat. There are no such problems with the guacamole, which tastes convincingly like someone made it just for you, or at least just for your lunch shift.
As with lunch, the breakfast menu is inexpensive. J'anita's offers a 'build-your-own breakfast" format with everything from individual eggs to pancakes listed a la carte so that if you wake up with the urge for, say, two pancakes, four eggs, grits and a sausage patty all you need do is recite. And if you just can't deal with all the decisions, a few preselected combination plates put just about everything on the morning menu together in various configurations. The best bets are compact, fluffy omelets, shredded hash browns with pepper jack cheese and good biscuits with white gravy porked up by spicy, crumbled breakfast sausage. J'Anita's is not exactly blazing any new territory here, but it is nice to have another breakfast option in a town where " like viable barbecue joints " they are mystifyingly scarce.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Craig and Kim Giesecke created J'Anita's signature redfish sandwich.