Liuzza’s on Bienville, Where Red Beans Meet Cajun Smoked Meat
“Ain’t dere no more,” Yat chronicler Benny Grunch observed in his musical paean to some of the long lost landmarks of New Orleans. And since the song’s creation, the list of the Crescent City’s “ain’t dere no more’s has only grown.
Bruning’s, Mandich’s, Sid-Mar’s, and Uglesich’s are just a few of the area’s throwback culinary casualties of recent years. But don’t cry for Liuzza’s Bar and Restaurant at 3636 Bienville St. in Mid-City. Thanks to the pioneering entrepreneurship of family matriarch Theresa Galbo and the tenacity of her children, this paragon of Crescent City corner restaurants is thriving 10 years after Hurricane Katrina and a barrage of personal tragedies that might have KO’d less-hardy souls.
Today its signature 18-oz. goblets of frosty draft beers and diverse cornucopia of Sicilian, Creole, Cajun, and soul food — served in a cozy two-room venue that evokes bygone days of post-WWII America — have become synonymous with the down-home local dining experience.
Decades-Long Waitress Becomes Owner
The red beans and rice served at Liuzza’s can trace their lineage at least all the way back to 1957, when a young Theresa Galbo began waitressing at the Liuzza family’s establishment, which was founded in 1947. The youngest of 12 children whose father operated a grocery several blocks away on South Hennessey and Ulloa streets, Galbo raised her family in the neighborhood and eventually purchased the restaurant in 1981.
With daughter Shanette Edler joining as a partner, Galbo’s diminutive yet warm presence became a fixture at the hostess’ lectern at the dining room’s entrance, where her trusty megaphone suspended by wire cut through the barroom din to alert waiting patrons to claim their tables. Theresa’s joint became a Mid-City epicenter for successive generations of New Orleanians and their ritual meals — before and after prep-football shootouts, Saints games, Jazz Fest, Carnival parades, high school graduations, bachelor parties, and funerals.
By the year 2000, Galbo was on track for retirement; her son Michael Bordelon came on as a partner; and Liuzza’s was firing on all cylinders, with lines snaking outside the door and a devoted crowd of eccentric regulars dominating the barroom, its wall adorned with the autographed photos of Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, “Vic and Nat’ly” cartoonist Bunny Matthews, and other local icons.
The distinctive denizens of Liuzza’s Bar
A cast of homegrown, hardboiled characters that would put Boston’s Cheers gang to shame frequented the bar in those halcyon days: Appel, the chronically irritable, cigar-chomping parole officer; Harold, the retired detail cop with a penchant for video poker and cocktails as large as his mustache; “Santa Claus,” the pugnacious old boxer in red long johns and snow-white beard, protectively escorting his octogenarian female companion in a frilly Easter hat worn almost year-round; Keith, the Scotch-and-7-swilling warehouse guy with a sideline as a bookie’s runner and a barked greeting of “Mah-boy” for fellow paisans; “Rod Stewart,” the former Irish Olympian track star who graced unsuspecting onlookers with impromptu lip-synched versions of “Maggie May”; Guy, the jaded, seen-it-all contractor who once owned Sancho Panza’s nightclub in Fat City’s disco heyday; “Buz,” the Sicilian-American stalwart whose shotgun compound across the street still hosts legendary parade parties; and “King Vern,” whose claim to fame as a former Endymion monarch would later be eclipsed by accidentally shooting himself in the hand with his reserve deputy’s pistol. These distinctive denizens — and so many more — would find a nurturing habitat in the only-in-New-Orleans environment at Bienville and North Telemachus streets.
After Katrina: “Hey, We Can Do This”
Everything changed on Aug. 29, 2005, when the levees failed in Katrina’s wake, drowning the restaurant (and much of the surrounding neighborhood) in almost 9 feet of murky water.
Nonetheless, the family was determined to reopen. “Our hope is this will help the rest of the community, that seeing us open will give them the faith and belief that, ‘Hey, we can do this, too,’” Shanette told The Times-Picayune in May 2006. “We have an obligation to the community; it’s like we realized that people are watching us.”
Liuzza’s eventually would reopen, on May 6, 2006, and as testament to its recovery, the dining room was even featured in a 2011 episode of HBO’s “Treme.” But just as the business was hitting a post-Katrina stride that year, a drunk driver robbed Michael of his ability to work, and a relapse of cancer claimed Shanette’s life. Her husband, Raymond, a retired New Orleans firefighter, staunchly kept Liuzza’s afloat for as long as possible before quietly putting the business up for sale.
Enter Theresa Galbo’s older son Frank Bordelon, who took over the business operations, thus keeping this beloved institution in the family.
The Cajun Smoked Flavor “Just Jumps Out”
Running the restaurant with his wife, Lori, and son, Frank III, Frank Bordelon has put a new stamp on Liuzza’s — starting with the red beans and rice. A chance road trip through the Cajun prairies near Mamou led Frank Bordelon to strike gustatory gold at Guillory’s Grocery in the tiny burg of Pine Prairie.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere, absolutely nowhere. But the cars were packed in the parking lot. And I said, ‘What? There’s got to be something going on on a Saturday at 10 in the morning, right?’ So I stopped. As soon as I opened the door, the aromas hit me smack in the face and it was like, ‘What in the world am I stepping into?’ And sure enough, standing two and three deep at this meat counter were people waiting. So I finally get to look at the meat counter and it’s all smoked meats of all kinds you can possibly imagine. And stuffed chickens and stuffed pork chops and cracklins. So I ask a couple of the locals, ‘What are ya’ll waiting for?’ They all kind of snapped, turned around and looked at me and said, ‘Boudin.’”
One bite of the pork-and-rice ambrosia was all it took for Frank Bordelon to be sold on the product. “Now I’m getting the boudin and the tasso and the sausage, and I just take the tasso and the sausage and use it to make beans with. And the mustard greens, the jambalaya. The smoked flavor just jumps out at you.”
And Frank is a connoisseur of smoked meat. Having run a Covington deli called Sapore’s in the 1990s, he smoked at least a dozen yardbirds a week for his chicken salad. “Whenever you can add real smoke into any kind of recipe and it’s not the liquid smoke, you can tell the difference. It’s perfect; it’s beautiful.”
Camellia: “Such a Wonderful Taste”
With Guillory’s tasso and sausage delivering that smoky succulence, Camellia red beans play the starring role. “The thing that really makes them really good is when you make a good stock and you put those Camellia red beans inside of that stock and you let those slowly simmer for maybe an hour and a half, two hours, in a big kettle,” Frank said. “We make 15 to 20 gallons at a time, and we use the 25-lb. bag of Camellia red beans. And I can tell you this, that the taste is so good. It’s just unbelievable how that nice smoked flavor comes out. And that Camellia red bean has such a wonderful taste — a flavor that you just can’t replicate anywhere else.”
Although Liuzza’s offers both Tabasco and Crystal hot sauces as tableside accompaniments, Frank himself prefers the green jalapeño condiment under the Louisiana Hot Sauce brand. And “if you can garnish it when you send it out with some fresh-cut green onions, I think that’s a winner,” he commented. Meanwhile, Frank III swears by a favorite — yet out of left field — garnish to his plate of beans: Cheetos, crumpled right into the mix.
All the New Orleans Classics — and More
Frank and his family continue to serve up many of the standout dishes that have made Liuzza’s famous: the Italian pastas with red and white sauces, spinach lougia, fried-seafood platters, roast-beef poboys, heaping plates of onion rings and fried pickles, stuffed artichokes, and the “Frenchuletta,” a muffaletta on French bread with a special olive salad. And behind the bar, the frozen Bushwacker daiquiri machine still whirls in perpetual motion.
However, they’ve also introduced some interesting new offerings, such as a seafood Napoleon appetizer, featuring fried oysters and eggplant medallions; a fresh beet salad; oxtail beef chili, with black, navy, and kidney beans; and, yes, Guillory’s boudin served à la carte. The draft-beer selection also has expanded beyond Coors Light and Abita Amber to include newer Louisiana brews such as Southern Drawl and Nola Blonde.
And in a real sign that progress has come to Liuzza’s, after decades as a cash-only business, the restaurant is now accepting credit cards!
“That’s Why People Come Here”
Plastic-processing capability will come in handy in the years to come. The blue-collar workers who labored in the nearby plants such as American Can Co., Inland Steel, and Taaka Vodka are gone, along with the staff of Mercy Hospital, dormant since Katrina. But even with those businesses now shuttered, the crowds keep coming, except more of them are doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals. Long-vacant swaths of land across Bienville Street are now being developed and promise to bring in even more customers.
No doubt, Liuzza’s on Bienville will continue to change, and yet so much there will always remain the same. And so it is with the cuisine of New Orleans. “It’s still evolving; it’s extraordinary,” Frank marveled. “And how did it happen? Years and years ago, the 14 square blocks that’s called the French Quarter. A port city. First you had the French and the Spanish, and then you had the Germans and then you had the Irish and then you had the Italians, and on and on and on. You had all of these people living within the 14 square blocks, and all it took was somebody to step out in their backyard, reach across the back fence, and tell their neighbor, ‘Taste this.’ And they’d taste it, and they’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s good, but I have a seasoning from my country that could make that better.’ And so therefore the food evolved a lot quicker. How it started so small really helped the evolution of the food here in this city grow. That’s why people come here, to taste the different flavors. And that’s something that we try to perpetuate here, to make sure that everything has its own unique flavor.”