8311 Jefferson Hwy
Harahan, LA 70123
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
In one sense, Charlie's Seafood is an old place rescued from the graveyard of lost New Orleans restaurants by new owners. The 1950s-era seafood joint did close for a while, and New Orleans restaurateurs Frank and Marna Brigtsen did buy and reopen it. But they did much more than that. Chef Frank, well-known for the contemporary Creole and Cajun-inspired cuisine at his fine, high-end Brigtsen's restaurant, has created a new template and standard of comparison for the casual New Orleans seafood house. This new, revamped Charlie's shows just how good our seafood can be, and does this in a laid-back, inexpensive, family-friendly setting.
Charlie's has the look of the classic seafood joint down pat, and that's because it is a classic seafood joint. The exterior retains its 1950s origins as a masonry addition to an older house, complete with vintage metal awnings and glass block windows. The main business sign clearly reads "Charles Sea Foods," but people have always called the place Charlie's. The interior has a single, large, potentially loud dining room with a long bar with no stools. There is a smaller room and bar in the rear for private parties. During the day there are lots of office lunch groups in from the nearby businesses in Harahan, while the evening brings much more of a family crowd.
Service is friendly and about on par with what you'd expect from a casual neighborhood restaurant. Orders come out quickly, even during busy periods, and the staff is helpful in accommodating larger groups.
The menu at Charlie's mines the familiar territory of the casual seafood restaurant, but if you're at all familiar with the style at Brigtsen's Restaurant you may recognize some shared DNA here. For instance, the excellent shrimp remoulade has the same sauce and even the same piped deviled eggs on the side. Meat pies are uncommonly good, made by hand with neat braided edges and served with pepper jelly sauce. Calas, the old-time Creole rice fritters, also get some well-deserved attention here, and they're filled with shrimp for extra heft. Onion rings are huge, thickly-battered and solidly done, and one of the most unusual offerings is the "dirty boy," which is the meat and seasoning mix for dirty rice (though without rice) smeared on pistolettes. Boiled seafood changes with the seasons, and the crawfish currently coming through are reliably good.
Some people will certainly make platters of boiled crabs, shrimp or crawfish the main course of a meal at Charlie's, though my preference is to start with a shared boiled serving and then move on to the entrees. There are many good ones to consider. At the top of the list is the "un-fried platter," which is similar to a longstanding special from the Brigtsen's menu. It combines drum, oysters and shrimp, each in its own distinctive, other-than-fried preparation. When seafood does meet the fryer here, good things happen. Huge shrimp and attractive oysters get their own, customized coatings, and wild-caught catfish is slathered with Creole mustard and served with grits in a rich Creole tomato sauce. Big, beautiful shrimp anchor an etouffee with a country-style brown roux and make a fresh shrimp salad a satisfying entrée as well. The roast beef po-boy, made with thick-cut but very tender slices, is a good alternative to seafood, though seafood is the reason to eat at Charlie's.
A chef's touch goes a long way to raising Charlie's desserts above the normal, mediocre standard of casual joints. The lemon créme brulée and the white chocolate bread pudding would both pass muster at much more expensive restaurants.
There's a full bar, and for parties sharing boiled seafood the draft beer by the pitcher is the way to go. Order your wine by color rather than label.
Expect moderate prices, perhaps one or two dollars per plate higher than the norm but well within reason for the higher-quality product. Specials are always good deals and there are kids' options for less than $8. The only whopper is the $22 "unfried seafood platter," though considering the amount of fresh seafood involved it doesn't seem like a bad deal.
My four-star ratings tend to go to high-end, ambitious, chef-driven restaurants. But Charlie's, though moderately priced and casual seeming, deserves to keep the same company. It set ambitious goals for itself in elevating the great richness of our region's seafood to its proper place, while keeping it accessible and rooted in the context of a neighborhood joint. This reborn restaurant meets this ambition beautifully, owing to immaculate sourcing of the best local product and the chef's sensibilities in the kitchen. I would cross town to eat here, and I would bring out-of-towners here as a lesson in why Louisiana seafood is such a big deal.