By Frank Sabatini Jr.
New Orleans Creole Café is one of San Diego’s most diminutive and tucked-away restaurants. Despite its address on San Diego Avenue in the heart of Old Town, tourists and locals alike can easily pass it by unless they wander through the grassy garden alongside the historic and supposedly haunted Whaley House.
Launched nearly 11 years ago by Mark W. Bihm and Humberto Villegas, the now-married couple has managed to attract a steady percentage of neighborhood taco crawlers with Louisiana favorites such as Crawfish Etouffee, shrimp Creole and hearty gumbo made with traditional dark roux.
The structure, which is known as a false-front house or swamp shack, dates back to the late 1800s. It was moved here from Fifth Avenue at a time when more than 200 of them lined the streets of Downtown. According to Villegas, the kitchen was once a gun shop and the small, homey dining room was a storage space.
Villegas has also been told by members of San Diego Ghost Hunters that the spirit of a crying little girl lurks inside. The group drops in for dinner a few times a year with paranormal detection equipment and they sometimes conduct séances after their meals, he said.
Open Thursday through Sunday only, Bihm does the cooking while Humberto works the dining room, its front porch and an adjacent outdoor patio. Bihm is a native of New Orleans and derived some of his recipes from “Mama Barker,” a longtime family friend who taught him how to regulate the butter, roux and cayenne for Crawfish Etouffee.
The dish was lush and creamy both times I tried it, and stocked generously with the tiny critters imported from his home state.
Gumbo with chicken and sausage uses a thinner, darker roux achieved from mixing oil into the flour instead of butter. Experienced Cajun cooks like Bihm know exactly when to yank it off the heat at the very moment before it would burn. In a recent visit, the consistency was smooth and the flavor sported accurate pungency. Plenty of soft French bread baked by Sprouts is served alongside to soak up the precious liquid.
The bread is served also with a starter of BBQ shrimp and Savoie’s hot beef sausage. We substituted the latter for alligator-pork sausage, which tasted basically like Kielbasa with kicked-up seasonings. When blended into pork, the reptile meat isn’t nearly as dense in texture as compared to when I’ve consumed it in pure form.
The shrimp were butterflied and ultra tender, although Bihm’s glistening-red sauce became the high point of the dish. It clung lovingly to the proteins and offered a fruity and oniony flavor that complimented the robust finish of Andygator doppelbock beer sold in 22-ounce bottles. Or if you prefer bloody Marys, the café slings a snappy, gulpable version made with wine-based vodka and secret spices.
Judicious measures of cayenne pepper were evident in every dish we tried, although with less of it poking through shrimp Creole. The large crustaceans are dressed in stewed tomato sauce containing the “holy trinity” — onions, celery and bell peppers. I’ve seen it prepared both milder and spicier in other places. Bihm’s recipe falls safely in the middle.
Conversely, he uses liberal doses of whiskey in the sauce poured over decadent bread pudding. It’s one of the booziest versions I recall having, and one of the best.
The café maintains a low profile leading up to Fat Tuesday, scheduled this year for February 17. Expect the regular menu, but with beads, masks and wreaths in place to chase away any forlorn spirits lingering within the property.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.