Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29
321 N. Peters St., New Orleans, 504-609-3811
This newcomer to the French Quarter works in a style that sounds familiar enough with tiki drinks and Polynesian cuisine, but makes both feel refreshingly original. This is for two different reasons, as we shall see below.
If you remember the old Bali Ha'i at the lakefront you'll know that the first qualification for tiki is to transport the guest, or at least set the stage with an exotic ambiance. Latitude 29 pulls this off with a lush decor of bamboo, thatch, tiki statues, glass buoys and other emblems of the old classic style. This has the potential to feel campy, but the presentation is tight and feels very professionally done. The bar is large and accommodating for drop-in dining, though to really settle in for a feast get one of the tables under the bamboo overhangs with a view out to the glimmering pool.
Let's begin with drinks, not only because that's where any visit will start but because they are as much the organizing principle of Latitude 29 as the food. "Beachbum Berry" is Jeff Berry, an author of many books on tiki drinks and their related culture who is credited with sparking the current renaissance for the vintage style. This plays out across the extensive drinks list, one that is based both in historic research and a very palpable sense of fun. The zombie, the mai tai, the suffering bastard...they're all done with style next to more obscure numbers, like the paniola made with bourbon and chocolate mole bitters or the Hawaii 504, with rum, honey and Chinese 5 spice, and garnished with (among other things) a paper finger trap to play around with at the table. The communal drinks, served in giant bowls with many straws and all kinds of garnish, are highly entertaining and made with just as much quality as the single-serve drinks.
The chef here, Chris Shortall, has built the menu for Latitude 29 as a playful mash-up of Polynesian restaurant standards and more traditional Asian elements imbued with a serious creative streak. There's a dumpling burger, for instance, with spiced ground pork on a seaweed bun and a deep dark dipping sauce. There are more conventional dumplings, made in house-made wrappers (including a vegetarian one). Pork ribs are cut into nugget-sized chunks that are glazed with a sticky-sweet sauce and served on a shiny metal platter. Steamed mussels in coconut milk get a dash of fermented black beans and a tangle of rice noodles for a light and highly flavorful dish. And the steak takes no prisoners, the cut beautifully textured when ordered rare and still well-crusted, with crispy fries and a peppery barbecue sauce.
Humble sounding dishes often unfold in bigger ways, which is the case with the "loco moco," essentially a hamburger steak drenched in the umami flavors of mushroom and soy over rice. And the Cuban sandwich is made on Hawaiian sweet bread with Creole cream cheese.
Desserts are very limited, the best bet being a simple order of the chocolate wontons, the familiar fried crackers laced with chocolate. A better move is just to try something else from the bar.
Discarding the steak as a (worthy) outlier, most main dishes are under $20 and most first courses or snacks are under $10. Most cocktails fall in the $9-$12 range.
While it doesn't take itself too seriously, this restaurant and bar does bring serious quality to the drinks and food, and it does so with impressive consistency. Add the essential décor and a taste for nostalgia and you have the makings for a fun outing with friends to start a night in the French Quarter, or the destination for a meal that delves deep into tiki territory.