A lost Lakeview restaurant emerges again in Metairie with a menu full of recipes from an old Louisiana oyster family.
Sometimes the stitching that sews up a good New Orleans food story follows unconventional patterns. As such, Mt. Carmel Academy, that venerable Catholic girls school in Lakeview, played a hand in the return of oysters Ralphie, a beautiful, bubbling concoction of oysters baked in their shells under tangy Italian cheese, garlic, pepper and a dash of beer.
Oysters Ralphie was a favorite at Barataria, a one-time Lakeview restaurant that’s been closed since Hurricane Katrina. But now these baked oysters are back at Café Ralphie, a new restaurant well-hidden in the corner of a Metairie strip mall. Here you also may came across a tomato salad loaded with jumbo lump crabmeat or sautéed redfish topped with crawfish amandine.
Café Ralphie is the type of restaurant I just love to find, the type of place that rewards the optimistic local eater’s confidence that behind even an ordinary façade you might just discover some great Louisiana cooking and Louisiana stories to match.
The cooking here is the work of Ralph “Ralphie” Pausina, a chef from a Croatian family with a long history in local oyster beds. The menu is replete with references to Four Bayou and Bay Ronquille, place names that today are known mostly to the oystermen and fishing enthusiasts who plumb the nebulous coast of southeast Louisiana.
The Pausinas first opened their restaurant Barataria back in 1996 in the same spot where Susan Spicer’s restaurant Mondo operates today. The family sold the restaurant in 2004 to new operators who began a massive renovation of the building that wrapped up in the fateful summer of 2005, just in time for the floods after Katrina to destroy the place. They didn’t reopen, and that seemed to be the end of Barataria.
By that time Ralphie was a chef with a large corporate restaurant group in Houston, though by 2008 he was weekend-commuting back to New Orleans, where his wife Glenda Rhode-Pausina was living so that their daughter could attend Mt. Carmel, continuing an important tradition for their family. Stretched between two cities, the allure of home won out. Ralphie moved back and soon the Pausinas opened Café Ralphie in that Metairie strip mall.
With its picture windows, drop ceiling and mix of family bric-a-brac with fleur de lis totems, Café Ralphie looks like the kind of place you’d drop by for wraps and iced coffee at lunch. But, what really makes this place special are old standbys from the Barataria days and newer dishes that reach far beyond standard lunch fare.
For instance, there are at least three different baked oyster dishes cycling through the menu, and you might find a creamy, garlicky lump crab sauce fused to a slab of blackened catfish. Then there’s the old Pausina family recipe they call oyster boat pasta, with probably a dozen oysters cooked with andouille in a chunky, trinity-laden red sauce over a heaping bowl of spaghetti.
Most days, service is handled single-handedly by Glenda, whose unvarnished enthusiasm for whatever you order might seem like a sales pitch if her praise for her husband’s wasn't so convincing. The Pausinas just seem really happy to be serving their food again. And, after sopping up a few oysters Ralphie, I’m happy they’re back too.
5024 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie, 504-889-7770