Where Y'Eat: Exploring The Latin Deli At Norma's

Jul 3, 2014

Eating your way through the deli — and falling for impulse-buy ceviche — at a new Latin American market in Mid-City.

A trip to a Jewish deli means Reubens and Rachels and maybe a nice cup of soup. At an Italian deli, it’s wheels of cheese, a dozen types of cured pork and, if you’re in New Orleans, a muffuletta. But what about a visit to a Latin American deli?

As the new Norma’s Sweets Bakery in Mid-City shows, it can mean huge cartons of carne asada with tortillas cooked on the griddle as you watch, or a bracingly tart ceviche of shrimp, drum and scallops, which is offered, almost unbelievably, from iced tubs sitting by the cash register, competing with the candy bars and chips for impulse buys.

Then again, the Latin deli experience could just as well mean chimitacos, a very noisy dish, a real crunch fest of cigar-shaped fried tortillas filled with chicken and piled with cabbage. Or it could mean a superlative Cuban sandwich, maybe the best in town, a butter-crisp length of bread baked in house and pressed down around ham and falling-apart roast pork.

This Norma’s is an offshoot of a bakery and grocery of the same name in Kenner, and you can make groceries at the newer Mid-City edition too. There are many more Latin groceries like this around town these days, and different spots have different strengths. In fact, less than a mile away from the Mid-City Norma’s, the Ideal Market has grown by leaps and bounds into something like a Latin grocery superstore. Ideal (or “id-e-al,” as the name is commonly pronounced by its devotees) is where you go to stock your grill with ribs, flank steak and pulsing, red chorizo. But Norma’s is where you go for a daily-changing array of hot plates spanning many different Latin traditions.

You’ll find heaps of ribs coated with a dark mixture of spices and grill char and stewed chicken, all sliding off the bone into a rust-colored liquid to ladle over yellow rice. One day there might be vigorón, a Nicaraguan dish of boiled yucca and chicharones, on another roasted corn sprinkled with crema and white cheese, and there are always a few different tamales bound in banana leaves, foil and twine.

Norma’s is a colorful, engaging place, with piñatas strung from the ceiling, bins of cactus and plantain and a tidy dining area in the corner. On the weekends, there are gigantic bowls of soup including mondongo, which has a broth so rejuvenating that even people who aren’t into tripe, which is the star ingredient of mondongo, may want to consider it anyway.

I’d say don’t forget to check out the bakery cases, but it would be impossible to miss them. They’re filled with a whole golden constellation of the soft, chewy Mexican pastry called pan dulce, and the long, cruller-style Cuban donuts called churros, and slabs of flan. There are meat pies, with beef or pulled chicken and bits of dried fruit inside puff pastry. Others, filled with guava and cream cheese, fit somewhere between lunch food and dessert treat and therefore make really good snacks. 

Peer beyond the breadboxes and you’ll likely see Norma’s other claim to fame — sheet cakes decorated extravagantly by ladies who apply icing like plasterers. I have seen these cakes in action at kid’s birthday parties, and I can only advise that a bounce house be readily accessible to absorb the potent sugar highs they promise.

Norma’s Sweets Bakery

2925 Bienville St., New Orleans, 504-309-5401; 3221 Georgia Ave., Kenner, 504-467-4309