Designated Diner: Getting Deep in the Bayou at Pagoda
Designated Diner: Cassie Pruyn
Day job: When it comes to NolaVie, Cassie is our poetic historian who is reporting on anything and everything that has to do with the bayou. It's in the name of curiosity and research since she is currently working on a book about the bayou. And what about the poetic part? She's also a poet, and her first full poetry book is "almost there," as she puts it. On top of that, she also teaches at Bard Early College New Orleans (composition instructor), and she busies her days with running a household and taking care of kids.
The thing about the bayou: Cassie has always been interested in research and words, and when she started reading about and researching the bayou, she knew she could merge the two together. Whether it's about uncovering details below the ground, such as when she discovered that, "One of the most notable ways Native Americans altered the local landscape (primarily the marshy parts) is through shell middens—those semi-intentional garbage heaps filled with discarded animal bones and clam shells," or learning about how and why boat races took place on the bayou, she's interested. And she's researching it with end notes, handmade maps, quotes, and citations galore.
The restaurant: Pagoda (1430 N Dorgenois Street). That's right - that adorable, Spanish-tiled roof, circular spot right by the bayou. We're sticking with her theme of all things bayou.
What made Pagoda her first choice: There's obviously the whole bayou connection, and it goes even deeper than that. One of the Pagoda owners knows the history of the area and the building. The owners are active in the neighborhood and when they moved into Pagoda, "They moved into the building that already existed." They didn't build out, they didn't add a new structure, and Cassie is still wondering, "What in the world is this circular building doing at the center of (she pulls out her map) Dorgenois, Kerlerec, and Bayou Road? Not to mention that Bell and Desoto are just steps away - all in this web." She intends to find out.
What she looks for in a restaurant: She is huge on ambiance and atmosphere. She loves restaurants with a sense of place and where the indoor and the outdoors are always present. As she says, "We're in New Orleans, so I like a good courtyard space."
The restaurant MO: First and foremost, this place is adorable, totally affordable, and they not only have staples that are always on the menu, but they like to throw in new items on a daily basis. You know what you're going to get when you go there, and you have no idea what you're going to get when you go there. It's not a crisis, it's an feeling of excitement! And...it's fresh. You see right into the kitchen as you order your food, so you see the chefs slicing potatoes, washing greens, and stirring up the goods for the baked items. They do have some items that are constantly present - their sausage rolls, their reliably delicious brew, the toasts (although the toppings may change--our day gave the options of smoked salmon, or ricotta and poached figs, or whipped goat cheese with pistachios), and there are always salads, sandwiches, and soups to choose from each day. If you want it vegan, you can get it vegan - even the breakfast burritos where they turn the refried beans, eggs, potatoes, and cheese into a deliciously curried tofu scramble.
What's good: Start off with a ginger tonic. It's crisp. It's spicy. It has a big of sugar to it, and it will most likely become your favorite drink of the summer. And to end, the guava and goat cheese pastry had this vegan (yes, I know there's cheese in it, but for the sake of journalism I ate my half) salivating for more. The Villa Arcos sauce had Cassie dipping her burrito and her fork into the small cup it came in - it's super spicy and the perfect addition to any breakfast burrito. These are stellar smaller choices. For the big choice, go with the smoked salmon spread with capers and red onions. It had both of us making noises instead of words, and as Cassie said, "The salmon was a favorite of mine, which is unexpected for me."
What else: They were out of the kale, spinach, garbanzo and feta turnover, but we can just imagine how that was. And for those who want some meat in the sunny side of Pagoda, go for the pork tenderloin with wasabi ginger slaw.
The ambiance: It's relaxed, super chill, all outdoor seating where they yell your name when the food is done. It's that place that if you went on a first date there you'd be wondering, "Was this really a date? Cause it felt like a hang."
How to order: Get the menu before you walk through the door (they are placed on the outside). Know what you want because only about four to five people can fit inside at once. When that order is in, move on outside and find a seat on one of the picnic benches and wait for your name to be called and for your food to arrive.
The bottom line: Super affordable (we ordered 7 items for under $40) with a chill, laid-back environment that is not chill on its flavors or fusions. I'd say mixing and matching of flavors (sweet/savory; spicy/salty; mild/fruity) is one of their strong suits. Not to mention that the building is a secret history waiting to be told. Also, the two of us ate everything. No leftovers. That's always a good sign.