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Where Y’Eat: Finding New Food At Old Arabi Eats

Ian McNulty

Clam chowder in Arabi? A pair of young transplants have a different plan for their neighborhood restaurant, starting with the location.

With so many film production sets cropping up around the area these days, it’s understandable if during your first visit to Old Arabi Eats you suspect you may have just wandered onto one.

After all, this small, unassuming cafe feels more like something from a Hollywood script than from the precedent of real life along the what can be, let’s face it, a hardscrabble stretch between the Lower Ninth Ward and Chalmette. Inside an old diner by the railroad tracks, you find a young couple who have traded the big city restaurant scene for small town life serving food they love to their new neighbors. At first the locals scratch their heads at these upstarts, then give them a try and before you know it everyone from ladies in pearls to guys in refinery jumpsuits are chowing down together under the ceiling fans. The chef kisses the hostess, regulars smile approvingly, fade to black, roll credits.

But Old Arabi Eats is no movie set, and the food here is the real deal. For confirmation, start with a kale salad that has an audible crunch to its dark green ruffles and drifts of shaved parmesan. Then proceed to the taut, juicy, roasted half chicken with bok choy, oyster mushrooms and a pillar of sweet potato pecan bread pudding that’s light as soufflé and contemporary as can be.   

To call Old Arabi Eats the most exciting restaurant its neighborhood has seen in years is a compliment, but, given the neighborhood, it might sound like faint praise. There has always been great cooking in Arabi, but most of it happens in people’s homes. It certainly isn’t a restaurant destination.

But recent New York transplants Chuck White and Song Ly saw an opportunity. The couple met in Brooklyn, where they worked together at one of the hipper restaurant in that most hip of American locales. But then they moved to New Orleans and eventually decided to carve a niche for themselves just over the Industrial Canal from the burgeoning Bywater. The turf seemed wide open here, and the leases were within reach, something that seemed impossible back in New York.

They opened Old Arabi Eats in December. Yes, some people walked in expecting a plate lunch special, saw a bistro menu and walked right out. And yes, some customers told them they were nuts for removing the fountain soda dispenser leftover from the last tenant and putting candles on the tables at night. An air of bootstrap determination runs through the place, from the mismatched plates and paper towel napkins to the full, though lightly stocked bar. This is a restaurant that aims higher without putting on airs.

The menu is drawn from the modern American playbook rather than anything that looks like Louisiana home cooking. Clam chowder counts as an exotic find in the land of oysters, but here it is sharing the page with shrimp risotto, hanger steak a few sandwiches and that chicken.

Get coffee after dinner and it arrives in a French press and with enough umph to lift a drawbridge over the Industrial Canal. That’s good news if Arabi entails a bit of a drive for you, but either way this place is worth a visit.

Old Arabi Eats

7005 St. Claude Ave., Arabi, 504-563-0131

Lunch Tue.-Fri., dinner Tue.-Sat.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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