The Little Jewel of New Orleans: Chinatown's New Lagniappe | KCET
The Little Jewel of New Orleans: Chinatown's New Lagniappe
Not quite a year ago, a crisp green-and-white awning sailed up above the entrance of what used to be a down-at-the-heels Chinese restaurant on Ord Street in Chinatown.
Passers-by paused to tent their eyes and squint through blank windows. There wasn't much to see -- just butcher paper stretched tight across the windows. No real evidence of anything tangible -- beyond a name -- "The Little Jewel of New Orleans." Was it a business? A gentleman's club? Some new-for-old Hollywood creation? Mirage?
In L.A. it could be anything.
Its halfway state piqued curiosity across all sorts of casually drawn community lines: Chinatown business owners wondered who the new addition might be. The NIMBY folks were soon speculating. As word traveled to other corners of the basin, Louisiana transplants became guardedly hopeful; same was true for food enthusiasts, too.
Executive Chef Marcus Christiana-Beniger and his partner Eunah Kang -- Little Jewel's co-proprietors -- worked stealthily for months behind that paper curtain. There were lots of prep to do: clearing and rethinking the space, writing and editing the menu, importing products directly from New Orleans and its environs -- including, most crucially, he exalted, Leidenheimer loaves that separate poseur po'boys from the proper ones.
Their new spot, as Christiana-Beniger saw it, was to be straightforward, deli-sandwich shop, complemented by a carefully curated grocery. The little market would cater to the needs of the neighborhood as well as offer the pantry staples for those making the trek to satisfy their New Orleans jones. That meant dishwashing liquid, barbecue briquettes, and baby wipes, in one area; a full compliment of regional brands -- Louisiana pepper sauces, Zatarain's Root Beer Concentrate Camellia, red, white and navy beans, and Blue Plate mayonnaise -- in another.
They coasted into a soft-opening in August -- a quiet milestone that slid out through social media and word of mouth. Off came the butcher paper to reveal a gleaming black-and-white chessboard floor, salvaged, but spruced-up wooden tables and chairs, vintage-looking hand-painted signage and shelves stocked with products.
"We were busy that first weekend, even without the deli open," says Kang, who adroitly keeps all the pieces in play both front-of-house and in the market. They were still perfecting the menu's offerings -- the heat and smoke of the sausages, the taste and texture of debris gravy, the consistency of the bread pudding -- everything. People stopped in with questions, wish lists, and a healthy measure unsolicited advice. During that opening weekend a gentleman wandered in asking if they would be serving fish plates: "C'mere, lemme show you what a fish dinner should look like," he paused, pulling his wallet from his Sunday dress-slacks, then rifled through the compartment where snapshots of loved ones usually are stowed: "Here," he sidles up to the chef, "this here is what a fish dinner should look like."
It's precisely the interaction Christiana-Beniger had been primed for. From the beginning there's been a fair amount of "input" to field, and he's not just on top of it, but all over it -- a master of the sly aside, and the waggish, if not double-edged, retort. He knows at root: Louisiana folk have opinions and take their cuisine, and its intricate preparation, seriously. It's handed-down and deeply personal: "This is slow food, done in a slow way from an old culture."
Christiana-Beniger, a native New Orleanian, had envisioned a place that could serve not just many appetites, but moods -- a spot where walk-ins might come to grab a cup of Community Coffee and briefly cool their heels, or one where Louisiana transplants from Shreveport or Slidel, or Lafayette could linger, trade stories, and connect with community from home. "There's the home you come from and the home you choose," says Christiana-Beniger, "and I wanted to bring a little flavor of mine to Los Angeles."
So much of Los Angeles's working narrative is a story of collage, of what might appear, at first, to be a series of non sequiturs -- make it up as you go. The city is full of pockets of places that were once this and are now that. Even still, "Everyone thought I was crazy to do this here," says Christina-Beringer. "But," he raises a finger to underscore, "I kept saying 'What if I'm right?'"
To get a sense of context, it's best to make your first approach to the Little Jewel on foot, from a few blocks away. This will wind you through the old sidewalks jammed with souvenir lanterns and windchimes, ducks hanging in steamed-up windows, trays of boiled peanuts and kumquats, the over-ripe scent of produce warming in the sun.
That unmistakable museum piece -- Chinatown.
Make that swing onto Ord Street, just north of Alameda, you'll get a surprising, if not dislocating, sensory hit, like there's a party that's already started. Maybe it's a monster James Booker piano flourish, or Otis Blackwell pleading "Let the Daddy Hold You," mixed in among the clanking good luck wind chimes. If it's in the middle of the day, Monday lunch, say, you might get the extra bonus: a disembodied voice, often Christiana-Beniger's, like a barker enthusing over a loudspeaker: "Order #22 I've got one oyster po'boy. An Irish Channel roast beef po'boy and a red beans and rice."
Unmistakable New Orleans in L.A. -- Chinatown, too -- now.
Happening upon the Little Jewel is a transporting blast of New Orleans, smack in the middle of old Los Angeles. It's just steps away from El Pueblo -- the city's birthplace -- and adjacent to the place where many post-war Louisianans first got their glimpse of L.A. if they crossed city limits via train on the Sunset Limited.
This marriage of place and cuisine isn't as unconventional or random as it might at first seem. This corridor of L.A in particular, has long hosted a coexisting mix of ethnic enclaves (many carved out by racial housing covenants) within this historical radius of old downtown. Among them: the Basque community, Old Chinatown (which once stood where Union Station does now), the former Little Italy, Bronzeville -- one of L.A's early African American enclaves, once lit up a stretch where Little Tokyo now stands. (Accordingly, touchstones here are fluid: Our memory of place tends to be hard-and-fast, when the reality is actually ever-changing.)
Food, of course, is one of the more powerful triggers of sense memory, a conduit to a lost time or place. For many years, Los Angeles boasted one of the largest expat Louisiana communities outside of the Pelican State. Consequently, there've been long-standing gathering spots or watering holes Louisianians tended to gravitate toward to satiate that yearning for home: The New Orleans Fish Market on Vernon and Arlington (where you can also get your your fresh crab and shrimp as well as bags of Camellia beans and boxes crab boil); Harold & Belle's or La Louisianne are just a few. As well, there are the fondly remembered been-and-gones: Homer & Edy''s Bistro, Paul Prudhomme's West Coast offering, Orleans, the little ultra-casual meet-up joint, Jase's Sid's Cafe on Exposition.
But Little Jewel, from the get-go, has been the first to try to bring both the classic mainstays and create a fully-loaded, one-stop Louisiana-outpost, not kitsch but pure environment. And with that has grown a community.
Early talk of a place to grab in-house smoked tasso for your own red beans and fresh muffulettas has had the curious driving in from as far as Riverside or San Diego to sample. Christiana-Beniger is the master of the "table-touch" -- slipping out from the kitchen or from behind deli-case microphone, to make rounds, shake hands and ask about the meal, or maybe even send you home with lagniappe -- a little something extra. Truth told, says, Christiana-Beniger: "I never didn't want to be a character."
In short time, Little Jewel has begun to evolve into a surrogate "home-kitchen" -- a place to get red beans on Monday and to "make groceries," yes, but also a spot where you might talk brass-tacks politics about Gov. Jindal or Mayor Landrieu, or commiserate over the Saints. If you close your eyes and just listen, you're no longer passing time near the corner of New High and Ord but Dauphine and St. Philip; it's sentimental, yes, but also anchoring and restorative -- and costs a whole lot less than a ticket home.
For Christiana-Beniger, this project has not been simply an avocation but an act of reclamation of his own culture and and an uneasy past. He'd worked in the French Quarter: on kitchen lines and front of house as a maitre'd, he'd bartended on Decatur street, holding court. "But, when I left New Orleans, I didn't think I'd be cooking."
He'd come to L.A. for space, for room to grow personally. "To just be." In New Orleans he'd felt hemmed-in, frustrated and consequently, angry. "I was too crazy for New Orleans. Just didn't fit in." he explains. "For all that laissez faire attitude, New Orleans was still uptight. It's a very small town in lots of ways. And everybody was always in your business. And," he adds, "I was ambitious. So I always knew I'd be leaving."
The Downtown L.A. he touched down in the early 1990s was, at certain hours and along certain corridors, still a ghost town, a place full of room. He picked up jobs: working in commercial film building sets and props, as well, doing some time as an art director. For a spell he also ran after-hours and all night dance parties around town. But over time something shifted inside; an echo of a feeling he'd had back home. "New Orleans is like its own planet; you can do a little bit of everything there. So I had taken some art in school. So you get your art job, you get a kitchen job. You just do something until you burn out, then switch to the next. But then that happened here."
Cycling through possibilities, culinary school felt like a lark, but perhaps was the necessary stop gap, before he moved on something else. But cooking, as it turned out, wasn't just diversion, it felt like second nature -- an aptitude that had been influenced and shaped by his grandmothers on both sides. "My paternal grandmother, Florence, knew that I was angry -- so it was the way she helped me. She taught me a lot of things in terms of cooking. All of the Louisiana classics, of course. On the other side, the super Italian side, cooking was revered as well," he reflects. "I got better and better. It's like being in the marching band in New Orleans can be cooler than being on the football team? Same thing goes with cooking there."
Initially, his thought had been to pick up some units at Los Angeles Trade Tech College then transfer to Cal Poly Pomona to study food science. But being in the mix at Trade Tech -- working with his classmates, learning new techniques -- reconnected him with the rush of working with ingredients, creating something on the spot with his own hands.
In certain ways he'd come so far to go "back home," but process had underscored something. "I'd hit a wall creatively. So what do you do? You scratch that itch, you switch mediums."
When the padlock snapped open on the shuttered 207 Ord Street -- the former Hoy King Seafood -- what Eunah Kang remembers most is the stench. "This place was closed, nine months. Everything, I mean everything, was left where it was. It was dirty. Honestly, I was repelled, but also drawn to it, this huge challenge." As the story went, the last restaurant owner -- a former waiter who had inherited the business -- had one day just locked the doors and walked away from it. Done.
They took to it like an archeological dig; each layer revealing the property's many incarnations: several Chinese restaurants, a hotel. They unearthed old mahjong tables and vintage gambling tokens -- leftovers from an illegal fan-tan parlor; old letters between Chinese immigrants and their families back home, as well as a basement full of water. A pack of Christiana-Beniger's friends from school helped out dividing trash from treasures. "We didn't have a professional crew," says Christiana-Beniger, "because I wanted to know myself exactly what was wrong. We cleaned up for a month just so we could get it cleaned professionally."
Wading through the ruin Christiana-Beniger saw nothing but promise: the walk-in cooler, the smoker -- and that huge gas line that powered the deep fryers? "One of the things Southern people and Chinese people do share is a love of fried foods." The parallels and possibilities became more apparent. Just looking around, "It was a diamond in the rough. An unbelievably beautiful dump."
He went back to speak to his instructors at Trade Tech, "told my charcuterie teacher, Chef Vachon, about it, what I was planning." He said he was in. He makes all the sausages in house, "and he makes 'em pretty. Back then he didn't even like spicy food -- he's from Ohio -- but he does now." Other LATTC instructors made themselves available for consult. Originally, Kang explains, their concept had been a walk-in/delivery set up to be open 24-hours, but just seeing this place, what it offered in terms of size and equipment -- helped them to refine and expand thinking. "We couldn't have done it without Trade Tech, Marcus's teachers, the faculty," says Kang, who first met Christiana-Beniger through a Trade Tech connection. "They helped walk us through so many layers of this process."
The other essential piece slid into place when it came time to assemble a crew: the obvious choice was his classmates, already a bonded alliance. "Naturally, I could have interviewed and brought in people, but one of things in my mind was to be able to work with the people who might ultimately become by staff. I wanted to be in the trenches with them, talk to them," he explains. "I'm a Yat from New Orleans. You have to live that shit. So here, as an outsider, I get to be a local by putting in the work in with them."
His largely Angeleno brigade is now learning about New Orleans history and culture through passed-down recipes, working with the "Holy Trinity," and learning how to coax out a dark roux. "I know that there is a presumption that whatever we do, [because it's L.A.] will fly. But in my mind there had to be someone informing the restaurant. And that fell to me. In putting this project together, I got better at it," he reflects. "Sometimes, I'd make them make a dish 20 times until we were sure we got it right. I'm not just teaching them how to cook that food, I'm teaching them about my culture. There's nothing better to me to know now there are vatos from Lincoln Heights making cochon du lait po'boys, and my little chola cashier behind the register is explaining the menu to customers." That act of passing on a tradition, he explains, makes it "even a bigger gamble and a bigger responsibility. Because in the end it's not their story; it's mine."
What's noteworthy is how surreptitiously The Little Jewel settled itself into its little Chinatown niche; a rendezvous, that in six short months, feels deeply woven into the community's fiber -- and somehow, perhaps, for all those years you might just have missed it.
Carrying this off, Kang and Christiana-Beniger understand, is all in the details. The weekly specials, the little notes affixed to shelves written in New Orleans-patois -- the "Thank You, Dawlins". And that come-hither playlist that tumbles out onto Ord Street? "Marcus spent more time on that than even the menu, I think," says Kang, "And he keeps tweaking it."
For both of them, it's about cultivating just the right environment -- making a connection with not just place, but with people across all of those dividing lines.
And while it satisfies one appetite to stroll up to the deli case and have that hot oyster loaf, wrapped in white paper, handed to you, it's also so much more than a sandwich -- it's heart.
"In owning that," says Christiana-Beniger, "I don't want to do a half-assed version. In terms of what's next, I want to see what grows organically. In certain ways," he reflects, "I feel like I'm guarding a girl."
That -- and a memory. Christiana-Beniger's paternal grandmother, Florence, who guided his hand in the kitchen when he most needed it, died in 2002, before he could get back to New Orleans to say a final goodbye: "I was wrecked for several years. Seriously."
One conversation in particular has stayed with him, across all those years, miles and regrets: "I'd been telling her about this sort of vague thought I had about one day maybe opening a place of my own ... and she turns to me and says, without a hesitation, 'Oh, I know it will be a little jewel...'"