Mid City Pizza: Serving Up Red Beans and Rice by the Slice
With its centuries-old culinary traditions steeped in Creole and Cajun culture and beloved far and wide, New Orleans was long notorious in its reputation as a mediocre pizza town — as least compared with the platonic renditions rolled out in northern bastions of Little Italy such as Brooklyn, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn.
After all, when you’re reeling in Neptune’s endless bounty hand over fist in your sleep and feasting on jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo from fais do-do to grave, perfecting the art of melting cheese on bread can get lost in the tricentennial shuffle.
However, times and tastes have changed (along with property values), and this town’s po’ pizza rap is changing faster than the Plaquemines Parish coastline. Mid City Pizza (4400 Banks St.) is among a new breed of purveyors working hard to alter long-held perceptions, partly by employing a “when in Rome …” philosophy that splendidly weds New York-style pizza with South Louisiana flavors. Besides offering a tantalizing array of pies with all the traditional fixings, the pizzeria has turned the heads of local “hey-brahs” with a unique special that honors the Crescent City’s most-cherished Monday meal: red beans and rice pizza!
Served exclusively as a Monday special, the bean pizza has struck a chord both here and nationally. New Orleans ABC affiliate WGNO-TV recently produced a short video feature on the dish, while the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) honored it as “The Best Vegan Pizza in the Nation,” besting a list of rivals operating in Olympian pizza strongholds such as Chicago and Long Island, N.Y.
“The PETA award was such a surprise and an honor,” said pizza chef and co-manager Daniel “D-Ray” Ray, who also is a vegetarian, a musician, and a force behind the DIY record-label collective Community Records. “To this day, I have no idea how exactly they heard about it. They just emailed us one day and let us know! I know I had some friends posting about it on the Internet in vegan blogs and such. I’m super happy to be providing a healthy, filling meal option for compassionate people.”
“A Staple of a Healthy Diet”
Recipes — and red beans — have been coursing through the Slidell native’s blood for as long as he can remember, with the melt-in-your-mouth manna of Grandma’s Thanksgiving noodles, Mom’s baked fresh-caught fish, and Dad’s award-winning chili seared into his vestigial taste buds.
“I started making red beans and rice from scratch every Monday when I was a sophomore at Loyola University in 2007,” D-Ray recalled. “For years, it had been a weekly tradition: I would make a big batch and eat on them throughout the week because I didn’t have time to make dinner every day. Being a vegetarian, red beans and rice are one of the only complementary complete protein sources. Beans and rice have been a staple of a healthy diet for centuries! Anyway, this clockwork motion — mixed with my creativity in the kitchen and love for both red beans and rice and pizza — eventually led me to simply put the two together.”
The Dish on How D-Ray Does It
So how does D-Ray concoct this doughy deconstruction of what is perhaps New Orleans’ most exemplary dish? “The first step comes the night before I want to cook: Soak the dried red beans in water (or some sort of hoppy beer) for at least 24 hours. I start the cooking process by sautéing diced Vidalia onions, green bell peppers, and celery until the onions are translucent and the bell peppers and celery are soft. Next, I add minced garlic and crushed red pepper and continue to sauté for just a little while longer. It’s easy to go past ‘browned’ to ‘burnt’ and you don’t wanna do that. Then I add the soaked, rinsed red beans to the veggies and the coldest water the faucet will give me. The cold water ‘shocks’ the flavor into the beans. Add a few bay leaves, bring the water to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally.
“Once it has thickened up a bit, I add parsley, thyme, and salt to taste and continue to simmer on low,” he continued. “I cut the heat and add some basil once I have the desired consistency. At some point, I’ll put some Zatarain’s rice in a rice cooker. Once both are done, I mix them together and put them in the fridge. The red beans and rice become red bean pizza as soon as I scoop them onto the dough.”
Red Beans With Built-In French Bread
Customers’ reactions run the gamut, with the most common being “It’s … interesting” as well as “It’s so filling!” The dish is perhaps most popular with the health-conscious holdouts who lurk among us. “Vegans and vegetarians can’t get enough of it,” D-Ray confirmed. “They think it’s the best thing since nutritional yeast.”
D-Ray suggests that partakers fine-tune their expectations before chowing down. “People go into it like they’re eating pizza when it’s actually much more filling than that,” he observed. “Some people are skeptical because they are thinking ‘pizza’ when they should be thinking ‘red beans with the French bread built in.’”
When it comes to confecting his own red beans, D-Ray — like most New Orleanians — pulls from a time-tested playbook of personal preferences and family traditions. “The most important ingredient,” he believes, “is thyme. For me, it’s what makes them shine.” As for condiments, D-Ray pledges a singular allegiance: “Everyone knows Crystal is the only hot sauce for red beans and rice!”
Secret Ingredient: “Support Local Companies”
Mid City Pizza’s experiments with local specialties don’t stop with red beans. “The shrimp remoulade pizza was invented by my good, good friend, co-manager, and pizza sensei, Sean Barros,” D-Ray said. “It was created as a special around Lent, but had such a great reaction we decided to keep it around.” The restaurant also has offered a jambalaya calzone in the past.
Carnivores and connoisseurs of locally sourced products can find plenty of options at Mid City Pizza, starting with the beans. “I use Camellia red beans because I like to support local companies, no matter how big or small,” D-Ray declared. “Camellia also has a reputation of high-quality USDA standards and the beans are non-GMO.”
Sausage From Over Bayou St. John
Those seeking meat on their pizzas can choose from toppings such as pepperoni, meatballs, marinated chicken, bacon, or ham, but Mid City Pizza also has a special Sicilian weapon: Italian and hot sausage made in-house at Terranova’s, the practically legendary 90-year-old family-run grocery at 3308 Esplanade Ave. near the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
“We have been working with Terranova’s since the beginning, even before it was Mid City Pizza,” D-Ray said. “The Terranova’s family are some of the kindest people you could ever meet.”
And for some of the most delectable pizza you could ever eat west of Naples and south of the Mason-Dixon line, visit Mid City Pizza in the burgeoning Banks Street bar and restaurant corridor, in the space formerly occupied by Crescent City Pie and Sausage Company. Take a well-deserved break from your Monday laundry and Dutch oven to sample their made-to-order special, the red beans and rice pizza. Or, if you’re feeling more like Morgus and Chopsley, throw ethical concerns to the wind and sink your incisors into a flesh-laden Mid City Meat Monster. You’ll taste the difference!