Those of us who like to devote a few weekends a year to ferreting out good food in Cajun country have learned that some of the best finds turn up in the least auspicious settings. For instance, in the town of Broussard outside Lafayette the garish yellow façade of a modern Shell gas station conceals the wondrous meat counter of Billeaud's Cajun butcher shop inside, with all its boudin, andouille and seasoned pork stuffed with even more heavily seasoned pork. Likewise, it would be easy to cruise right by the low ranch-style building in St. Martinville that houses Possum's Restaurant and snicker at the curious name but have no clue as to the gravy-soaked combination platters of broiled meats and rice you are passing up.
With such lessons learned, I was open-minded on my first visit to NOLA Grocery in the Warehouse District on the promise that its sandwich counter serves po-boys made with smoked Cajun meats.
NOLA Grocery is in the middle of a block that doesn't seem to get much traffic. For promotion, it relies mainly on a dry-erase board propped up on the sidewalk and a square, white business sign adorned with stickers. Inside, the place is tiny, tight and stocked with an inventory that seems to include one of just about everything, from cans of spinach and ramen to packs of bungee chords and even a hot-glue gun. It seems less like a grocery store than it does a garage sale.
Still, if a po-boy joint can deliver the goods, not much else matters. NOLA Grocery delivers the goods, and much of it comes straight from Cajun country.
Every week or so, proprietor Murray Tate makes a provisions run to a butcher shop somewhere in the Lafayette region, though citing competitive concerns, he will not disclose which one. If there is a bad butcher shop in Acadiana, I have yet to find it; whichever one Tate is using certainly seems to pass muster.
The boudin he brings back exudes the convincing country aroma of a good, slow smoke. The links are dark, large and filled with plenty of rice, little or no liver and quite a lot of pepper. One link makes an excellent snack; two or three would provide a very rich, filling lunch.
The most intriguing item on the menu, however, is a po-boy with patties of smoked chicken. Roughly the size and shape of burger patties, they are made with chopped bits of chicken bound together with green onions and a mix of red seasoning that paints so much of Cajun butcher shop fare. As with the surroundings in which it is served, one does well to suspend judgment on the appearances of the chicken and simply eat it. This is a Frankenstein of a sandwich filling that is nonetheless delicious. Each bite fills the mouth with garlic, pepper and smoke flavor held deeply in the chicken flesh. All of it is held together by French bread from Binder's Bakery, which has a remarkably firm crust and chewier interior than most local po-boy loaves.
The star ingredients in smoked jalapeno sausage and smoked green onion sausage po-boys also are Acadian imports. Tiny knots of tied-off casing at the links' ends speak to their authenticity. Each has a dense, meaty texture, and the jalapeno version has an assertively hot after burn.
NOLA Grocery turns out worthy renditions of standard New Orleans po-boys, including two distinct versions of roast beef. The most straightforward has thinly sliced meat with hearty, dark brown gravy. The other option is very different. It is made with pot roast not slivers or ropes of it but bona fide chunks, some of which have a faint, pleasing crustiness at the edge. The meat is yielding and very flavorful on its own, and in place of gravy, the sandwich is finished with a bit of beef jus. This seems like an eminently home-style preparation, as if someone had leftover meat from Sunday dinner and decided to make a po-boy from it. My mother is not from New Orleans, but I'd like to think that if she was, this is how she would make a roast beef po-boy for me at home.
Tate opened NOLA Grocery in its present location earlier this year after he rented the space to store landscaping equipment. He initially envisioned it as a simple convenience store. But thanks to his weekly Acadiana meat runs, this humble little hole in the wall is now strangely in sync with its high-profile neighbor, Cochon, the restaurant where chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski recently earned radiant praise from the New York Times' food critic for their upscale take on Cajun cooking. Eating a smoked chicken po-boy at the patio table that constitutes NOLA Grocery's communal seating area or schlepping down Tchoupitoulas Street with a link of boudin hot from the microwave is not exactly on par with enjoying roasted oysters, housemade andouille and fried rabbit livers in Cochon's stylish dining room. But in a town that still has relatively few authentic Cajun food offerings, it's nice to find two such disparate ends of the spectrum represented on the same block.