Born in a Bayou
Nell’s has authentic southern comfort food figured out.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
Like the New Orleans’ version of the hurricane cocktail, Nell’s starts off a tad rough. Ultimately, however—like the hurricane—the joint’s potent southern character kicks in.
The hurricane slaps you with an alcoholic hand. Nell’s confronts you with a spartan dive bar feel. These are immediate reminders that with both, it pays to know what you’re getting into.
The hurricane is a powerful drink that throws its own Mardi Gras in your mouth. It’s great for trading beads on Bourbon Street, not swirling and sniffing.
Nell’s—which has taken over Chipper’s old spot and is still working on changing the sign on Fremont—is a bar with dart boards, pool tables and a big screen aspiring to be a bar-restaurant (the adjoining room has no-nonsense white tables on the floor and Mardi Gras masks on the walls). It’s great for authentic southern food and a drink before a concert at the fairgrounds, not ambiance and five-star service.
When I first visited Nell’s with my buddy Jon before bowling (note: not with Mother Dear after church) we wrestled with hurricanes and sausage poor boys ($10 with onion rings or fries). But not without a little help from Holmes.
We sat at the bar, where we met Holmes and the bartender Lou, who balked when I asked for two hurricanes.
“You sure?” he asked, prompting me to wonder if he was looking out for my brain cells or the rest of his evening. “That’s a five shot drink. I gotta charge you 10 bucks…” I reiterated the order, and Lou reminded me of the price.
When I hesitated, Doy “Call Me Holmes” Holmes, who wore a black Nell’s hat and a look of assured expertise, offered to pay for one of them. My appeals were refused and by sip three I was feeling swampy.
Jon then decided on barbecue ribs with macaroni and cheese and a salad ($9.49) and I went for Nell’s Specialty Gumbo with hush puppies and black-eyed peas ($10.75). From his seat next to us, Holmes inserted a thought.
“Lousiana Sausage sandwich,” he nodded. “It’s screamin’.”
Holmes was right on a both counts. The sausage is as Louisianan as a Cajun voodoo doctor playing zydeco. Co-owner and New Orleans native Clarence Esteen hauls in the Andouille French sausage any way he can. “I find out who’s comin’ this way,” he says. “They bring me boxes.”
And the sausages were screamin’—perhaps the best I’ve had. The Cajun spice was just right, tingling but not torturous, the smoky taste smooth. The crispy homemade onion rings only helped.
By the bottom of the hurricane, I nearly forgot to go bowling—predictably, not a career night; I didn’t forget I had to get back to explore the ample side dish menu and bring along a southern palate to verify their authenticity.
Upon our arrival on a Sunday night, our four-top was the only group eating. After we ordered, Lou quickly produced our plates. Luther of the South found his fried catfish ($9.49) almost ideal: the flour-cornmeal crust on the fresh chunks was light and spiced with thyme, paprika and mysterious Cajun spices.
His salty, bitter collard greens—a wet pile of dark green with bits of bacon and garlic—reminded Luther why he hasn’t ordered them on return visits to his native Virginia in years.
His hush puppies were as satisfying as they were educational. The golf ball-sized fried balls (think large, soft cornmeal-doughnut holes) were a nice complement to the catfish. Luther commended their legitimacy—“they’re not sweet like ‘Northern’ hush puppies”—and announced their name was coined by seafaring chefs who fried bits of leftover dough and threw them to their dogs to keep them from barking.
I don’t need Luther to tell me my fist-sized mound of jambalaya was legit. Chunks of five kinds of homemade and special delivery sausage—pork sausage, hot links, smoked sausage, chicken sausage and the ascendant Andouille—stuck to beans, rice and bacon and enjoyed added sizzle courtesy of Cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes.
The fried shrimp ($9.49) my dinner date Alex—note: not a first date—tabbed came half a dozen deep, large and in crunchy rice-flour batter. Her sweet corn bread was good if unspectacular.
Meanwhile, Luther’s sweetheart Tina dug into robust red beans and rice ($6.45) flush with ham, bacon and sausage.
On the way out, we saw Holmes in the sparse dining room. His mention of upcoming dart leagues, pool tournaments and bodybuilding contests reminded me of Esteen’s talk of a hurricane dispenser coming to Nell’s. All of their ideas speak to the potential the place has to build upon its foundation of spicy and satisfying food.
I trust they know what they’re getting into.
2110 N. Fremont St., Monterey | 641-0793 | Kitchen open 4-11pm daily