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Mid-City's Cuban Connection

Ian McNulty
A crisply-grilled Cuban sandwich from Regla Store.

As turkeys were prepared in countless New Orleans kitchens this past holiday season, in the Cuban kitchen at the back of the Mid-City corner grocery Regla Store, attention turned to roasted pork legs.

With the shape and approximate size of bagpipes, weighing 20-some-odd-pounds on the bone, these pork legs are the traditional centerpieces for some local Cuban families at holiday gatherings and even at parties for football games so momentous they call for their own home feasts.

It's the same legs though -- so thoroughly steeped in the classic Cuban marinade mojo - that power the Saturday lunch specials of roasted pork at Regla Store, as well as this deli's everyday specialty of Cuban and medianoche sandwiches. Order a sandwich and pork is sliced from the bone, layered on French bread (or on sweet, yellow rolls for the medianoche) and then pressed until the garlic and sour orange flavors of the mojo seep over the ham, Swiss and pickles within.

These pork legs, at once both holiday custom and everyday staple, are the pride of Carmen Garces, who runs Regla Store with her son and his wife. Ms. Garces' name, and her store's address, should be familiar to local aficionados of Cuban flavor. That's because before Hurricane Katrina she operated Garces Restaurant from the same building. She ran it as a full-service caf since the 1970s, and up until Katrina it had been a quiet, backstreet joint with trim window curtains, modest furnishing and a home-style feel that was so convincing you half expected Ms. Garces to join your table just as soon as she finished serving dinner.

After Katrina, a branch of the family opened a second incarnation of Garces Restaurant in Kenner, which has since closed. But Ms. Garces and her son decided a grocery store would fare better in their then-flood-ravaged pocket of Mid-City. They named the place Regla Store after her old neighborhood in Havana, the municipality of Regla, which she left prior to the 1959 revolution. But the restaurant business runs deep in her family, and eventually Ms. Gerces turned the back of her new Mid-City grocery into a deli serving the same Cuban standards for which her old restaurant was known.

The kitchen is open and guiltless and basically equipped like a family home, with the addition of a fryer and the all-important foil-lined sandwich press. Order the Uruguay sandwich, another pressed specialty, and Ms. Garces fetches a few thin-pounded slices of marinated Cuban steak, fires up a cast iron skillet and tends it with a long fork. If she decides the black beans you just ordered need more seasoning, she might snatch some onions and peppers from the grocery's tiny produce rack and slice them into the simmering pot.

There are roast beef po-boys and red beans on the Regla Store menu too, which seems appropriate enough. On the grocery racks, under a small shrine of candles and incense honoring the Virgin of Regla, you can shop for ground achiote paste for your home Latin recipes, or New Orleans pantry staples like Blue Plate mayonnaise and Tony Chachere's. This is a New Orleans neighborhood hybrid, after all, a place where one wall sports a map of pre-revolution Cuba and the other a poster of Drew Brees.

Regla Store
4200 D'Hemecourt St.
New Orleans

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