When last we encountered Chef Robert Riddle, he was clad in stain-free chef’s whites, schmoozing customers at San Remo, his upscale Italian restaurant at the corner of West and Lockhill-Selma. Today, after a come-to-Cajun/Creole experience in New Orleans, he can be found, clad in a purple T-shirt, slathering sandwiches with mayo at his new catfish and po’ boy parlor on Austin Highway. He doesn’t consider it a come-down, so maybe we shouldn’t either — suitably tacky Mardi-Gras décor and acceptably annoying Cajun music notwithstanding.
In the pantheon of classic Crescent City dishes, red beans and rice loom even larger than ’boys and cats; tomes have surely been written about the requisite ham bone, the (apparently optional) pickled pork, the (equally optional) cayenne and pepper pods — and the fact that Louis Armstrong signed his epistles “red beans and ricely yours.” Or so it’s said.
Riddle’s red beans may have included the ham bone (it’s always removed), but even without it, his sausage-studded version at least rings true to the tenor of the original: it’s spicy, it’s thick and meaty in flavor, and it utterly upstages the very sturdy pork-based andouille sausage that sits atop it on the Monday special. The required rice? Just enough to act as a foil for the boss beans.
A small amount of rice tops the styro serving of gumbo chez Podna’s; the gumbo itself is of the composite kind, with both shrimp (the pesky petite ones that are almost tolerable here) and sausage, along with a modest amount of okra. Most of the thickening seems to come from a light roux, not filé powder (at least I didn’t taste it) and not the okra (the African word for it gives gumbo its name). And a sure hand with spicing gives it a relatively restrained tingle. True, I’d rather pair sausage with chicken or even oysters, and I’d definitely go for shrimp with some size, but the flavors work and the consistency is classic, so I give this gumbo a qualified go.
I’m less of an aficionado of poor boys, the classic New Orleans sandwich — most classic, it happens, in its roast-beef-with-lots-of-gravy form. Riddle does both roast beef and Texas pot roast (which sounds as though it would be the gravy winner), but I was seduced by the fried-oyster model, considering frying a trickier technique than roasting.
Podna’s bread is warmed, as it should be, giving this otherwise feckless “French” loaf just enough crispy crust to contain the filling. Shredded lettuce, sliced tomato and pickle, along with a smear of mayo, are the oysters’ bed, and they are suitably subtle enough to let the oysters in their cornmeal coating shine. They shine to the extent that almost everything else is superfluous, providing a handy way to eat out-of-hand and to get a few veggie vitamins. The oysters alone, with a squeeze of Riddle’s feisty remoulade — the best one I’ve tasted in the city — would make me just as happy.
Despite some chopped black and green olives and a flash of pimento, I wasn’t entirely happy with my muffuletta: nobody seems to get the garlic and olive-juice part right hereabouts. The round loaf (half a sandwich is plenty) did sport a reasonable cheese and cold-cut component, but this is not a sandwich to go out of your way for.
Feel free to drive from as far away as Fredricksburg for the fried catfish, however; yes, you can tell where this cat’s been, but the seasoned cornmeal coating is sublimely light and the fish firm yet moist. Even the accompanying hushpuppies — often worth only tossing to the hounds — are paragons of crunchy pulchritude.
The coleslaw that comes with the plate is crunchy, too, and good enough; the pinto beans pass muster; but the fries are flat-out failures: too brown, too limp. The kitchen can fry fish for sure, but potatoes are still a challenge. (There are also grilled and broiled plates, such as flounder and chicken breast, but I never got there.)
On the dessert front, Podna’s bats a clear .500 — an easy calculation given that there are only two to consider. I was warned that the bread pudding didn’t have raisins (one traditional version even contains fruit cocktail and canned peaches), but the server should have been more concerned with what it did have: a texture to die for (not in the good way.) OK, maybe I’m being extra-critical, but it was an unduly dense pudding, lightened only by an add-on sauce that seemed to be more crème anglaise than brandy- or whiskey-laced.
The same sauce is squeezed on the peach cobbler, and here it actually becomes part of an appealing whole: peaches with some texture still apparent, a cakey matrix (the next best thing to biscuit), and just enough cinnamon-laced sweetness. The right finale to send you out whistlin’ “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In” … You’ll want to be in that number.