The surge is working. Things are looking up when it comes to Downtown dining. The relocation of longtime favorite Tinoco’s from the Arts Factory to the Las Vegas Club casino left room for another neighborhood fave, Paymon’s, to open up shop Downtown. The Plaza has added Omelet House and Firefly, bolstering the culinary reputation of Fremont Street.
Now, appropriately placed in the vintage space of the Holsum Lofts on Charleston Boulevard, we have Lola’s, a fine café from Louisiana native and 15-year personal chef and caterer Beth Pokorny. This is the third go-round for this restaurant space, opened originally as a deli. Take 2 was Italian food. Today, it looks great, a classy and comfortable space with creamy green walls dotted with colorful portraits of New Orleans. If you want a view of I-15 or the construction at Symphony Park, take a patio table. If you’re alone, have a seat at the small counter and watch one of the house specials being prepared on the grill: charbroiled oysters with lemon garlic butter and parmesan cheese.
Brought straight to you from the grill—the fresh, smoky sea treasures still sizzling in their shells—these signature oysters are the prize on an impressive list of starting plates. The lump blue crab cake is decent and meaty enough, but I prefer crawpuppies, spicy, deep-fried balls of a corn bread-like mixture full of sweet crawfish meat. You can opt for crawfish pies or a hearty cup of chicken, sausage, okra and seafood gumbo to start your meal, too.
Steak, burgers and chicken also come off the grill, but it’s more fun to stick to Lola’s house specialties. Pokorny told me her go-to is bronzed catfish, pan-blackened and placed on cheesy, creamy grits (she uses Gouda) with a delicious andouille and mushroom ragout. It’s a terrific dish, well-portioned and flavorful, and the fish seasoning has a spicy bite but no bitterness (hence the “bronzed” description). She also does New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp, typically not barbecued at all but simmered in a zesty pool of butter and spices, and shrimp Creole, similar but sautéed in a tomato-based stew.
The menu is dominated by Louisiana favorites, and that’s another reason Lola’s is a welcome addition to Downtown. It’s not just another good place for lunch; it’s serving a regional American cuisine in a city that isn’t seeing a lot of this stuff. It’s still brand new, and there are a few hiccups. Etouffee comes with five plump, tasty shrimp, but the gravy could be spiced up a bit. There is a great selection of po’ boy sandwiches, from roast-beef debris to fried oyster loaf, but the bread can get a bit dry. These are tiny missteps, forgotten when it’s time for bread pudding with a rum praline sauce or decadent Bananas Foster in brown-sugar butter for dessert.
It’s great to eat better food Downtown, but the other new Downtown eateries aren’t really new. Lola’s is the most promising restaurant to open in the area in years.