Terrapin station

Dinner for one: $20 - $40

I could say that the Junebug (that’s my wife) and I chose to go to Café New Orleans the other night because we were planning to see the latest Coen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is set in the South, and we figured a little Southern cuisine would add a little flavor to our experience of the film.

I could say that I’ve always had a thing for eating unmentionable comestibles such as turtles and alligators, both of which are featured on the Café New Orleans menu.

Yeah, I could have said either one of those things. But that would have been lying. The real reason I wanted to go to Café New Orleans is that after reading the Jan. 4 SN&R article on the restaurant’s double life as a trendy and controversial hip-hop club, I was hungry for a little action.

Let’s face it.

Life is pretty boring.

We could all use a little extra action.

Well, that’s my theory, anyway, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know if the Junebug is with me on this. She’s one of those “put your coat on, it’s cold outside” kinda gals. At any rate, we’d be dining well before the hip-hop hour, and she appeared to have no qualms about joining me for dinner in Old Sacramento.

Remember the Union? That’s the space Café New Orleans occupies, and the interior has changed little, if at all, since that longtime fixture closed its doors several years ago. No reason for it to, really. The Old West theme suits Café New Orleans just fine. Even the funky old paddle fan that loops through the overhead seems right in place. The paddles run off this cable that’s driven by an ancient reciprocating motor. The cable is divided into six segments, there are two to three sets of paddles fixed perpendicularly to each segment, with one to four paddles in each set. The segments alternately spin clockwise and counter-clockwise, seemingly at random.

I could watch that damn thing all night long.

But on to the food.

Those who aren’t utterly ravenous can easily survive off Café New Orleans’ appetizer menu. Caribbean shrimp, for instance, is simply an abbreviated version of the entrée. The spicy-hot, perfectly charbroiled shrimp are served on a generous bed of red beans and rice, as are the gator skewers.

And what about that alligator, anyway?

The two long chunks of charbroiled swamp monster had the texture of overcooked shark and a taste similar to catfish. Something you definitely have to try at least once—and maybe only once.

Turtle soup, on the other hand, is a dish Campbell’s ought to start canning. The stringy strips of terrapin reminded me of shredded carnitas; the thick, sherry-based broth was loaded with garlic. Even the Junebug tried it, after restraining thoughts of Snavely, the pet turtle we once had.

We were disappointed with the unimaginative salad of iceberg lettuce and stale French bread we were served before our entrée. A first-class restaurant needs to pay attention to such details.

There’s a wide variety of Southern items to choose from on the menu; our waitress graciously allowed us to sample several. It was a close call between the jambalaya and the gumbo, but in the end, we went with the gumbo. We were served a medium-sized bowl of chicken, andouille sausage, okra and rice suspended in a wonderfully spicy broth. Unfortunately, the meager amount of meat in the dish was outweighed by the preponderance of okra, although in the vegetable’s defense, it was far crispier here than its slimy reputation. For dessert, we split a piece of homemade sweet potato pie that was an absolute killer.

The hip-hoppers were arriving as we finished, and it looked like it would have been fun to have stayed. But we had a movie to catch. Café New Orleans certainly helped set the tone for our film, but both of us agreed that we’d like to see it push a little harder, particularly when compared to other local restaurants that serve similar fare.