Noah’s Ark Café
Kingdom come hungry
A great flood didn’t carry Edward and Iolanda Johnson from New Orleans to Albuquerque in 2005, but Katrina had something to do with it. That journey would be a logical reason to call their restaurant Noah’s Ark Café, which serves a range of New Orleans specialties—but Edward says that’s not why they picked the name. Perhaps it’s a nod to the biblical boat’s function, stewarding the DNA of the animal kingdom to safe passage. But in the case of Noah’s namesake café, it’s the secrets of Cajun, Creole and New Orleans soul food that are guarded. Closely.
I placed my order at the counter, then settled into a big stuffed chair facing a television tuned to the preacher channel. Between the chairs are tables that look like pedestals, upon which Bibles are presented. Artwork adorning the sparse dining room walls addresses two themes: the Lord and the New Orleans Saints. The lady at the counter shouted my ticket number, and I proceeded to eat my way down to a Deep South heaven—specifically, a side dish of stewed okra. A little tart, a tad sweet, a bit spicy, the okra embodied fullness in both feeling and flavor, something as mysterious as it was fulfilling.
The crawfish étouffée escorting the okra was chunky and spicy, though for an entrée the portion size left me wanting more. It came on a bed of rice that was overcooked and soggy by my standards, but perhaps I don’t understand New Orleans rice.
A big platter of shrimp, catfish and oysters hit the deep-fried spot with a sledgehammer. It was the sort of simple, high-grade food you’d expect at a seaside shack where the main ingredients are fresh. The oysters were bonded to their spicy batter in a way that blurred the line between soft oyster and crispy brown coating. The catfish flesh was flakey, bright white and so clean-tasting I would have believed it was Pacific cod or halibut. Its batter seemed less spicy, though Edward wouldn’t say if different seafoods have different batters. Edward will not discuss his cooking practices at all. Period. He won’t even joke about it. “I’m not trying to be rude. Our recipes and our procedures are confidential,” he told me. “Trade secrets.”
A big platter of shrimp, catfish and oysters hit the deep-fried spot with a sledgehammer.
The catfish was so good I ordered it again in the football-sized po’boy. This time, the golden fish chunks were expertly combined with lettuce, tomato and mayo inside a large hunk of French bread—an elegant and time-honed equation. A well-built hamburger on a sesame bun was advertised as the best in town. I’m not going to comment on whether a burger without green chile could be the best in Albuquerque, but the Noah’s Ark burger is good enough that the claim isn’t preposterous. The patty had the perfect amount of sizzly exterior snap. And though it was a bit salty, the proportions of pickles, tomato, onion and mayo were just right. That burger is the only thing on the menu that would be familiar to New Orleans food virgins.
The file (say “fee-lay”) gumbo had a mild, rich flavor (thanks in part to file powder, made from sassafras leaves) and generous chunks of meat and sausage. Like the étouffée, I was hungry for more after cleaning my plate. A side of coleslaw was masterful, with raisins highlighting a sweetness that perfectly balanced the cabbage’s bitterness.
There was no bitterness in dessert. The pecan pie had the largest, meatiest pecans I’ve ever eaten in a pie, presented in the right proportion to sweet filling. Slightly doughy bread pudding was stuffed with grapes, peaches, pears and spices.
Whether you order to-go or dine-in, your food is served in sturdy take-out containers. Some are like bento boxes, allowing you to keep your sides and entrée separate. I can only imagine this compartmentalization mirrors the level of organization that goes on in the kitchen. Lucky that I have a good imagination, because I don’t think Edward would ever let me near his kitchen. His final word on matters of cooking was “please don’t ask me again.” It’s an ark that won’t be raided any time soon.