When the Taste of Home Mattered Most

New Orleans, La. –
Each year, as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina comes around, I think about the transformational power of the very early months of the recovery, when everything seemed to be at stake, teetering on the brink of individual decisions. I think especially of the way the actions of a few could inspire so many, and how often that inspiration happened around a kitchen or in a dining room.

A restaurant meal is sometimes a convenience, and usually an indulgence. But after Katrina, dining out could also feel like an act of faith and an expression of solidarity with our neighbors and with the small business owners who struggled to bring these eateries back.

That's precisely how it felt in early November 2005, just about two months after the storm, when the tiny Spanish restaurant Lola's reopened along the elevated ridge of Esplanade Avenue in Mid-City.

By the time I made it here on its reopening night, every table was already jammed and a dozen people were milling around outside under an oak tree, sharing their Katrina stories. By this point, we could pull off the hardboiled attitude and keep it together as we talked about flooded houses, vanished jobs and the insurance company run-around. Once we were at our tables inside, though, we melted.

Lola's does not serve New Orleans food, as most people know it, but it's long been a neighborhood fixture, and that meant it was a place that, at least briefly after Katrina, we thought we would never see again. That was back when we also thought we would never see our neighborhood again, at least not in any functional way. So when the alioli arrived, when the paella and ceviche were set down on the table, our tears showed up too. It wasn't a big, demonstrative group sob, but all over the room people quietly wiped back tears with their napkins and toasted each other in voices rattled by emotion. There were pledges to never leave, or to come back soon.

At one point, someone tapped a spoon against a glass, as if calling a wedding party to attention, and the dining room grew quiet. Then someone started clapping, loud and fast, and the idea spread in an instant. Soon everyone in the room was standing up and cheering and hollering, hoisting their glasses high. Everyone was looking at the open kitchen across the room, looking to Lola's owner Angel Miranda, the Barcelona native who had reopened his restaurant and brought back one little piece of our New Orleans. The dining room was seized by a spontaneous standing ovation.

Later, Mr. Miranda would tell me that he was running on pure adrenalin at that point, having worked to exhaustion to get Lola's open again, so he couldn't properly express his gratitude at the time. But on the inside, he told me, his heart was bulging with happiness.

I knew exactly how he felt. Our New Orleans was coming back as that first post-Katrina autumn faded into winter, though so slowly that we usually had to squint to see it in the distance. But sometimes, even back then, we caught a clear glimpse of what had been and how things could be again. We saw it in dining rooms full of familiar faces, and we tasted it in food prepared by local people determined to come back. That's why for me, Lola's, this thoroughly traditional Spanish restaurant, now always tastes like home.

Lola's Restaurant
3312 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans, 504-488-6946