Skip to comments.A Lunchtime Institution Set to Overstuff Its Last Po' Boy
Posted on 05/06/2005 7:33:23 PM PDT by concentric circles
New Orleans - Sam Uglesich grew up among mariners and fishermen off the coast of Croatia on rocky Dugi Otok, whose name means "long island," surrounded by the azure waters of the Adriatic. Twice he set out for the United States. The first time, he jumped ship in New York, but was caught and sent home. The second time, he made his break in New Orleans, then as now a more permissive city, and got away with it.
Naturally enough, he opened a seafood restaurant in his adopted city, specializing in the local shrimp, soft-shell crabs, lake trout and oysters. The year was 1924, the place South Rampart Street; Louis Armstrong had played gigs a few doors away.
Three years later, he moved to a modest frame cottage on Baronne Street. There, as the neighborhood around them crumbled, he and his son, Anthony, along with Anthony's wife, Gail, gradually built a reputation of legendary proportions. Grander establishments like Galatoire's, Commander's Palace and Antoine's loomed larger in the guidebooks, but the exacting standards of little Uglesich's (pronounced YOU-gull-sitch's) - everything bracingly fresh from lake and gulf and bayou, nothing frozen or imported, and absolutely no shortcuts - generated greater buzz.
Without benefit of advertising, word of Uglesich's big, tan, glistening oysters, its sweet, plump crawfish balls, its searing shrimp Uggie and its overstuffed yet feather-light po' boys spread across the city and then across the country. It mattered not to most people that it took no credit cards and served neither dessert nor coffee.
Five days a week, 11 months a year, lines have formed outside the ramshackle building, which displays a sign from the long-defunct Jax Brewery in one window. On Good Friday this year, customers began arriving at 9 in the morning, even though the restaurant does not open for lunch, the only meal it serves, until 10:30. Soon there were more than 200 people in line, and the sun was setting as the last of the day's 400-odd clients were being served.
All this with just 10 tables inside and 6 on the sidewalk outside.
Soon Uglesich's will close forever, at least in its present form. Anthony and Gail Uglesich are exhausted, worn out by years of rising at 4:30 and working flat-out all day. Balding, bearlike, Mr. Uglesich, 66, told me he would shut the doors in mid-May, but he has renewed his liquor license, just in case he finds retirement miserable.
"I may go nuts," he said at the end of a particularly brutal day. "I doubt it, but I won't know until I try it. If I do climb the walls, I might try packaging our sauces for retail sale, or maybe do some catering - people are always offering me thousands of dollars to cook for their dinner parties - or reopen here for four days a week, with limited hours and a very limited menu, just appetizers. No more of this, though."
Mrs. Uglesich, 64, a petite woman whose regular customers call her Miss Gail, put the situation bluntly. "Our bodies are telling us we can't take it anymore," she said in the soft, liquid accent that marks her as a New Orleans native. "Anthony has missed only two days' work since we were married, and that was 41 years ago."
Neither of the Uglesiches' two children - Donna, 40, a businesswoman, and John, 35, author of "Uglesich's Restaurant Cookbook" (Pelican Publishing) - has shown any desire to take over the business. "It's too hard," Mrs. Uglesich said.
With many New Orleans restaurants, including some of the most famous ones, relying these days on frozen crawfish tails and frozen soft-shell crabs and on shrimp and crabmeat imported from Thailand or China, Uglesich's stands out more than ever.
"Look," Mr. Uglesich said, peering through wire-rimmed glasses, "90 percent of the shrimp eaten in this country is imported. Local crawfish costs me $7 a pound, compared with $2.50 imported. People in restaurants here know they can get away with things. But I'd pay $10 for Louisiana crawfish, if that's what it takes. Otherwise, what's going to happen to our local fishermen? When we're gone, I don't know."
Two houses across the street from Uglesich's have been spruced up recently, but otherwise the neighborhood remains pretty insalubrious. A big parking lot for the trucks of Brown's Dairy occupies one corner, weed-filled vacant lots several others; the neighborhood seems miles, not just a few blocks, from both the imposing, pillared mansions of the Garden District and the busy shops and restaurants of the Central Business District.
A few weeks ago Mr. Uglesich was mugged late at night, but he still showed up for work the next day, battered and bruised, to stand in his usual position behind the counter, ready to take orders and to dispense seafood wisdom along with the wines that sat on a shelf behind him. He usually stocks 15 or 20 labels from France (Trimbach, for example), Australia (Penfolds) and California (Ravenswood). None sell as well as beer or Mrs. Uglesich's horseradish-, lime- and chili-spiked bloody marys.
The setup is utilitarian, to put it kindly: concrete floor, sturdy Thonet-style chairs, Formica-topped tables. Mrs. Uglesich makes the sauces and soups at home. Mr. Uglesich brings them to the restaurant in his car. The kitchen gear consists of a single eight-burner range, a fryer, two refrigerators and several sinks. There are only seven employees in the whole place.
"I was never tempted to get big," Mr. Uglesich said. "I can't find enough good produce as things stand now."
He is a notoriously picky buyer. Many days, he rejects what his suppliers offer him, like soft-shells he considers too small. He claims to be able to tell as soon as a sack hits the ground whether the oysters inside are good enough. He checks every delivery of fish and shellfish with a practiced eye.
Mr. Uglesich buys catfish only from Joey and Jeannie Fonseca in Des Allemands, a tiny place in the swamps southwest of the city; bread only from the 109-year-old Leidenheimer Baking Company; and oysters only from the P & J Oyster Company, which was founded by two fellow Croats, John Popich and Joseph Jurisich.
Uglesich's focuses on relatively few main ingredients. It serves no meat at all, except for the roast beef po' boy, and only two kinds of fish: lake trout and catfish. K-Paul's made redfish famous, Lilette serves delicious drum, and the local pompano has been famous for a century, but Mr. Uglesich sticks to his longtime favorites.
Shrimp rules on Uglesich's tables. In addition to shrimp Uggie, you can order a shrimp po' boy (crisp fried shrimp in a long, toasted bread roll), shrimp and grits (shrimp in a delectably creamy sauce ladled over fried triangles of grits), grilled shrimp and onions, shrimp and country sausage with a creole mustard sauce, shrimp in bacon with a sweet potato soufflé, firecracker shrimp with barbecue and horseradish sauce, shrimp rémoulade, shrimp creole, shrimp stuffed with crabmeat, voodoo shrimp and volcano shrimp, among a long list of other dishes.
Voodoo shrimp, which contains black bean paste and is described on the menu as Asian Creole, and volcano shrimp, which includes ginger, soy sauce, black bean paste and Chinese red pepper, reflect the influence of recent migrants to south Louisiana, as does the Vietnamese dipping sauce that is now served with the crawfish balls.
Still, it is hard to top the raw oysters on the half shell served up on a side counter, cold and crisp and bereft of plate in the New Orleans manner, by the estimable Michael Rogers, once voted the fastest oyster opener in town. He makes his own ketchup-based cocktail sauce, but the oysters are so fresh that they almost beg to be eaten plain, with only a squirt or two of lemon juice.
"We heard from the president of the United States, a letter about our plans to close," Mr. Uglesich said, tearing up a bit. "That was very nice. We're nothing special here, just a couple of self-taught cooks. It's only a little hole in the wall."
Paul Varisco thinks otherwise. The owner of a restaurant-supply business, he has eaten lunch at Uglesich's three times a week for years. So often, he said when I caught up with him on Good Friday, "that I must be at least partly Croatian now, instead of Italian, French and German." One of the restaurant's best-selling specialties, Paul's Fantasy - pan-fried trout with grilled shrimp and cubed, sautéed new potatoes, all fearlessly seasoned - is named for him.
So, I asked, what will he do when Uglesich's closes? "I'll take Anthony out to lunch a lot," he replied, "almost anywhere to keep him out of Gail's hair."
Julia Reed, a writer who lives in New Orleans, is another regular. For her, Mr. Uglesich agreed to open on a Saturday night so she could give a birthday party in honor of her husband, John Pearce. It was a rare event; Mr. Uglesich has played host to private parties only a few times since he first did so in the 1980's, for a bash given by the record executive Ahmet Ertegun for the Fort Worth billionaire Sid Bass and his wife, Mercedes. Oscar de la Renta and Albert Finney were among the guests that time.
Ms. Reed dolled up the place with a giant silver punchbowl to cool the Pol Roger, masses of white lilies, linen tablecloths and monogrammed napkins. Bottle after bottle of Burgundy (Meursault les Chevalières 2000 from Joseph Matrot) and Alsatian riesling (Grand Cru Saering 2001 from Schlumberger) kept thirsts at bay.
The food was vintage Uglesich. One of the restaurant's idiosyncrasies is the liberal use of cheese with shellfish - liked by some and detested by others. Fried oysters with blue cheese opened the Pearce soiree, and I found myself in the first camp while my wife, Betsey, found herself in the second. But there was no dispute about what followed, including shrimp and grits, fried mirliton (a squash) with shrimp rémoulade, and luscious crabmeat au gratin.
Chunky and intensely creamy, the crab dish is "made of all the things you're not supposed to eat," Ms. Reed informed us, including butter, evaporated milk, egg yolks, whipping cream, Swiss cheese and cheddar cheese. It was divine. I must get the recipe, I thought; it would make a great advertisement for the dairy industry, not to mention a fine starter for my last earthly meal.
Mr. Uglesich saved the best for last. The afternoon before, he had bemoaned the tardiness of soft-shell crabs this year, which he attributed to cold weather. But at 7 o'clock that evening, a supplier showed up with the first of the season, still wiggling in a cardboard box lined with wet newspaper. They were mighty beasts, the size of salad plates, and magnificent when dipped in an egg wash, dredged in plain bread crumbs and fried until the tops and the legs were crisp and the undersides rich and creamy.
The tartar sauce that came with them was house-made, of course.
Anthony and Gail Uglesich take orders behind the counter. The doors were locked for the last time today, good for them, too bad for the rest of us.
Uglesich's, a Baronne Street institution, once upon a time.
Anthony and Gail Uglesich.
Michael Rogers, shucking oysters for 30 years.
BBQ Shrimp. Recipe for Paul's Fantasy, sauteed shrimp and catfish, spicy, the way you like it right here!
Buy the Uglesich's Restaurant Cookbook for 25 clams at Uglesichs.com.
New Orleans bump!
Well that's different...
"by the estimable Michael Rogers, once voted the fastest oyster opener in town"
You can tell the guy that wrote this is from New York. I guess he wouldn't know what an "oyster shucker" was.
Best. Restaurant. Ever.
Just checked their website...
...oh, man I hope the place is resurrected and I live long enough to try just 1/8th of the menu.
Now if the Acme Oyster House, Galatoire's and Johnny Po' Boys goes away, I will REALLY be pissed off!
Y'all might have already seen it, but here's a wonderful article by Emeril Lagasse from a couple of years ago:
"Best. Restaurant. Ever."
I totally agree with your sentiments.
Their pot roast po' boy melted in my mouth. ;o)
The only reason I was there is that my husband
was craving an oyster po' boy.
I'm not a shellfish eater, and I don't eat fresh
water fish...come to think of it, I'm just not a
big eater of anything "live".
I love veggies, and I didn't ask to be this way. lol
Their pot roast po' boy was to die for!
It, literally, melted in my mouth.
It's sad to see them close up shop.
But, I guess we all have to do it...sometime.
I screwed up the for the second time today.
The article is by Pableaux Johnson, not Emeril Lagasse.
Lagasse is the last quote in the article:
"He's been a hero of mine for years. He's a smart man, he's a great cook, he's a smart business guy. It's unfortunate that he hasn't been able to find someone to take over for him. But that would be pretty hard for somebody to do, because it's so personal for him and Gail. And so we'll end up losing a great institution. It'll be a sad day." -- Emeril Lagasse
Ain't nothin' wrong wit' dat! You jus' stan' clear when dem crawfish hit da table an' den ain't nobody gonna lose a finga' or nothin'! Tell you what!
"Ain't nothin' wrong wit' dat! You jus' stan' clear when dem crawfish hit da table an' den ain't nobody gonna lose a finga' or nothin'! Tell you what!"
You do that real good! ;o)
I'm a native. Mind you, I don't ordinarily speak that way myself (I never did), but I think in that voice when certain subjects come up. And you get me back down in New Orleans, and it's hot out, and we're having a good time, and maybe having a drink or two, listening to some good music, and the subject of food comes up (as it always does), well, I start talking with a crazy ol' drawl that easily passes as local. Several times I've noticed, when visiting with Yankee friends, being asked in the first day or so "Where y'all from" and then noticing a day or two later the question has changed to "Now, where ya friends from."