No two bowls of gumbo should be exactly the same. Heck, even when they’re served from the same pot the precise mixture of seafood and meat and seasoning may differ from bowl to bowl, based on the luck of the ladle. This is certainly the case with Creole gumbo, a down-home style sometimes described as kitchen sink.
And yet, even for the endless gumbo variations out there, sometimes an overarching house style for a particular gumbo can speak to you in a voice you may recognize even years after your last taste.
That’s just how food memories are wired, and that was my experience recently over a bowl of gumbo at Dunbar's Creole Cuisine.
Dunbar’s is back after a long hiatus, and in a new location, now on Earhart Boulevard on the edge of Gert Town. It looks a lot different from the old Dunbar’s that was on Freret Street before Hurricane Katrina. But then, sometimes the evocative power of a remembered meal can soar past the setting.
Dunbar’s was for many years one of the lingering question marks of Katrina and its legacy on New Orleans restaurants. While some restaurants never reopened, Dunbar’s future was more ambiguous and included a few chapters in different formats, though without a permanent home.
During one span, it was possible to get a taste of Dunbar’s cooking at the food court of the Loyola law school student union. You had to know it was there, tucked away in an academic building, but some fans found their way.
More recently, Dunbar’s cooking persevered through catering gigs and festival appearances, where the family also dispensed updates on their eventual return to the restaurant business.
New restaurants open so frequently in New Orleans now it’s hard to keep track. This one though has a special hook, given its history and particular journey.
The lasting memories that many of us have from Dunbar’s are pre-Katrina vintage, and that makes this humble restaurant a powerful touchstone of a different time, conjuring the New Orleans that existed before the sweeping change of the past decade.
It was an intensely local restaurant. Visitors who found their way to its door had to be well-informed and on the hunt, or else in the hands of good local hosts. Inside, Dunbar’s dining room felt like a cultural crossroads for people from all walks of New Orleans life who shared a taste for its homey Creole flavors.
Today, as before, Dunbar’s cooking is a mixture of urban Creole cooking and country Louisiana cooking. The daily specials proceed through red beans with fried chicken, candied yams with cabbage, mustard greens with turkey necks. At breakfast there’s liver and grits next to the pancakes and pork chops. And there’s always the gumbo, that Dunbar’s Creole gumbo, all crowded with hunks of flavor-giving crab and roughly-hewn chunks of chicken on the bone and falling off.
It’s been a long road back for Dunbar’s. The new restaurant looks different, and the city around it is different now too. But plunging a spoon into the roux and tasting a gumbo that’s back from limbo makes this down home joint feel right back at home again. Learn more at wwno.org.