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Feeding a need in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS – Most visitors to New Orleans have one thing in mind: eating. At least for the few days they are here, they are obsessed with food and in search of as many French-Creole delicacies as their time will allow.

It's no surprise, then, that one of the first questions asked is: "Where do the locals eat?"

Now, the answer is at their fingertips, along with easy transportation to get there.

When You Go

Mandina's, 3800 Canal St., 504-482-9179;

Redemption Restaurant, 3835 Iberville St., 504-309-3574;

Katie's, 3701 Iberville St., 504-488-6582; .

Liuzza's, 234 N. Telemachus St., 504-482-9120;

Venezia, 134 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-488-7991.

Brocato's, 214 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-486-0078;

Pho Tau Bay, 216 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-485-7687.

Chateaubriand Steakhouse, 310 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-207-0016; .

Fellini's Café, 900 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-488-2155.

Mediterranean Café, 845 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-488-6088.

Pandora's, 901 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-289-0765.

Michael's Mid-City Grill, 4139 Canal St., 504-486-8200.

Thanks to the new Canal Street streetcar, which has returned after a 40-year absence, a corridor of good eating has opened up to visitors staying in the French Quarter or in downtown riverfront districts. Often, the smaller, lesser-known cafés and bistros, like many along that route, are just what visitors are looking for: great food at lower prices.

It's a known fact in New Orleans that neighborhood restaurants can stand up to the big guys in many ways. Sometimes the best gumbos, fried oysters and boiled crawfish are served in out-of-the-way places. Most of their business comes from locals who reserve Commander's Palace and Galatoire's for special occasions but seek out good food at weekday lunches and on weekend evenings. Some are not in easy reach of downtown visitors, but a fun ride on the streetcar brings plenty of action 10 to 30 minutes away.

For a $1.25 one-way fare, you can board the bright red, air-conditioned streetcar to more than 20 popular eateries, not counting fast-food, chain and hotel restaurants. Unlike its green counterpart that plies St. Charles Avenue in a somewhat bumpy ride, the Canal Street car offers smooth sailing through the interesting Mid-City section from the French Market to City Park, home of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Boarding the streetcar at the Mississippi River between Harrah's Casino and Saks Fifth Avenue, the ride is 40 minutes to the end of the line, or 45 minutes from the market. This route leaves Canal Street to turn onto North Carrollton Avenue and runs to City Park. A second route continues on Canal Street to the much-visited cemeteries, but most accessible restaurants are along the City Park track.

Mandina's is possibly the most-beloved neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans and is just a few minutes from the Quarter on the new streetcar line. Long a hangout for politicians and business people, it's known for the food locals love: heavy on seafood with a large dose of Italian thrown in. Dishes such as seafood gumbo, trout meunière, veal parmigiana, soft-shell crab and bread pudding are regulars at this funky but appealing restaurant that has been run by the Mandina family since the late 1800s.

Specials on the menu, such as Monday's red beans and rice, are always winners, and shrimp and oyster po' boys with a side of onion rings are as good as they get. Lunchtime is crowded, as is cocktail hour, when locals end their day at the bar, so it's best to go early or late for lunch or dinner.

Just down the street and one block off Canal on Iberville Street beckons the fine-dining and well-known restaurant, Christian's. It's in an old and beautifully converted Mid-City church where visitors now worship the upscale Creole-French dishes turned out there, such as daily fish specials and smoked soft-shell crabs.

Also on Iberville is Katie's, a favorite at lunch and dinner with home-style specialties such as fried chicken, red beans and rice, and crawfish pasta. A largely local crowd keeps Katie's packed at most mealtimes.

Within 10 minutes of the French Quarter and two blocks off Canal is the vintage N'Awlins neighborhood restaurant Liuzza's, with its generous platters of seafood, red-gravy Italian classics and deep-fried everything, even dill pickles. A cash-only joint, Liuzza's makes it easy for you with ATMs at the front door. Two appetizers may be enough food for the day.

As you round the turn on North Carrollton, so many restaurants hit you at once that you're doing well just to read the marquees. Among them are Venezia, a long-popular Sicilian-style restaurant where little has changed since the '60s, and Brocato's, home of locally famous Sicilian-style ices and pastries. There's also Pho Tau Bay, a new branch of one of the oldest Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans. Its authentic pho (noodle soup) is the heart of a cuisine that stands out as New Orleans' best Asian food. A couple of blocks on is the upscale Chateaubriand Steakhouse, which is as much French as American, given that the owners are from France.

Almost at the end of the line and within walking distance of the park are two of the top Mediterranean-Middle Eastern cafes in town: Fellini's Café and Mediterranean Cafe, where the hummus, tabbouleh, kebabs and falafel make a great lunch before or after visiting the museum. At the same intersection (North Carrollton and Dumaine streets), you can taste the famous New Orleans snowball at Pandora's, where flavored syrup is poured over shaved ice as delicate as snow.

Visitors staying in the far reaches of the Quarter can catch a streetcar to City Park as far back as the French Market, along the same tracks that accommodate the Riverfront streetcar. The cemeteries-bound streetcars originate at the foot of Canal Street between Harrah's and Saks. Many of the same restaurants are accessible via the cemeteries route, which also includes Michael's Mid-City Grill, home of the $100 hamburger (caviar on top and a bottle of Dom Perignon included). Michael's is also in walking distance of the City Park streetcar when it makes its turn onto North Carrollton.

When you board the streetcar, pick up "The Official Mid-City Canal Streetcar Guide" for a map of restaurants and other attractions along the routes. Then sit back and take in views of the Canal Street shopping district, the old Saenger Theatre and some classy architecture in an eclectic neighborhood of old families, working-class couples and renovating youth.

September 10, 2004

 By DALE CURRY / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Dale Curry is the retired food editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

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