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New Orleans Favorites, Spicy and Sweet at Cafe Booqoo (Published 2018)

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    Hungry City

    Cafe Booqoo
    478 Smith Street, Carroll Gardens

    A friend once tried to order beignets in New Orleans that were “light on the sugar.” The waitress was perturbed. When the beignets arrived, they came with sugar on the side, in a bowl, two inches deep.

    Indigenous to New Orleans, beignets are of the same genus as doughnuts but a separate species: pieces of puffed-up fried dough with an airiness somewhere between buoyancy and levitation. They leave drifts of confectioners’ sugar in their wake.

    Matt Pace, who grew up in New Orleans East and moved to New York a decade ago to make a life as a painter, started frying up his hometown treat at outdoor food markets in 2014 under the name Booqoo Beignets. He taught kickboxing on the side (“I’ve had many lives,” he said with a laugh) and saved money toward opening a restaurant, which he finally did last August: Cafe Booqoo, on the border of Carroll Gardens and Gowanus in Brooklyn.


    Po’ boys are built on bread shipped from Leidenheimer Baking Company in New Orleans.Credit...Yana Paskova for The New York Times

    “Yes indeed!” proclaims the front wall in electrified letters, backed by ads for old-time New Orleans goods like Sum-Good coffee and chicory, and Charles E. Erath’s Red Hot Creole Pepper Sauce, concocted in 1916. Next to the posted menu, a handwritten “Creole cheat sheet” defines terms like po’ boy and booqoo: “slang version of the French ‘beaucoup’ … meaning ‘a lot’ or ‘very good.’ ” Neon-bright Big Shot sodas, typically found only in stores down South, line the counter.

    Mr. Pace’s menu has expanded to include mac ’n’ cheese rich from a roux spiked with Crystal hot sauce (first bottled on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans) and larded with crawfish tails. Here, too, is jambalaya crimson from tomato paste, with buried nubs of chicken and smoky andouille. The rice is swollen and clingy, drunk on chicken broth and vegetable stock, thick enough for a spoon to stick straight up. The heat — cayenne, full force — is sanctifying.

    Gumbo starts with a simple roux of butter and flour and the “holy trinity” of onion, celery and bell pepper. Sweetness leaches from shrimp, heat from andouille. Okra is banished. “I had a very traumatizing experience with okra in childhood,” Mr. Pace said. “We’re not friends.” Instead, he thickens the dish with filé, ground dried sassafras leaves, a legacy of the Choctaw tribe in Louisiana. There’s just enough of its camphor undertone to bring dimension, without smacking of medicine.


    Matt Pace, who grew up in New Orleans East and moved to New York a decade ago to make a life as a painter, opened Cafe Booqoo in August.Credit...Yana Paskova for The New York Times

    These dishes are relegated to “sides” on the menu, but they were my favorites. The po’ boys are more low-key in flavor, built on bread shipped from Leidenheimer Baking Company in New Orleans — not always in peak condition, but when it is, a lovely compact of whisper-thin crust that fissures at the touch and an interior half air.

    They’re pretty sandwiches, belying their blue-collar origins in New Orleans’s 1929 streetcar strike. The DDP, which shares Mr. Pace’s mother’s initials, showcases Patton’s hot sausage, considered so essential to the New Orleans diet that newspaper articles after Hurricane Katrina reported evacuees stockpiling it. A white rémoulade muffles some of the sausage’s sting; crispy onions splinter nicely under the teeth.

    The Versai, layered with fried catfish, carrots and pickled cabbage and slaked with a sauce of satsumas (mandarin oranges) and chile, calls to mind the sweet-sour tang of banh mi. It’s Mr. Pace’s homage to the Vietnamese-American community in the Versailles section of New Orleans East. Let it sit for a minute; the flavors grow stronger the longer the pickles and sauce soak into the bread.


    Indigenous to New Orleans, beignets are of the same genus as doughnuts but a separate species.Credit...Yana Paskova for The New York Times

    For the Grandaddy, a meld of beer, butter and Worcestershire sauce is squeezed over shrimp as they seethe on the grill. They achieve a perfect char, but the slather of onion jam gets sweeter with each bite.

    In the morning, there are sweet-potato waffles and slightly soupy grits, oversweet from a spill of barbecue sauce. Better are the biscuit sandwiches, for which Mr. Pace gently kneads the dough in a double boiler set over ice, to keep the butter as cold as the grave; and a pecan pie muffin, which tastes like a psychological trick, as dense and lush inside as pecan pie — too rich to take more than one bite, yet you do.

    And at any time of day: beignets, fried swiftly in oil kept at a steady 375 degrees. Some of my fellow diners, pining over memories of Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, grumbled that these were too puffy, or not puffy enough, and round instead of square. No matter: The beignets disappeared, and we shed sugar like snow all the way home.

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