Friday, November 23, 2007

Dish on Dining: Lady’s Place

Home-style N’awlins Plates in Downtown Oakland
1611 Telegraph Ave. (at 16th Street), Oakland
Downtown (inside the Latham Square Building)
PH: 510.832.5239
Open Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–6 p.m., closed weekends
Major credit cards accepted

If you don’t have a watchful eye, you might miss Lady’s Place while strolling down Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. That’s because this modest Louisiana-inspired lunch spot is inside the Latham Square Building, off the lobby and down a few steps. But luckily for me, I have eyes like a hawk and I spotted a sign for gumbo right outside the building.

The lady of Lady’s Place is Roslynn Lady DeCuir, who since 1989 has run a catering company featuring her Cajun-California specialties such as gumbo, fried chicken wings, po boys sandwiches and red velvet cake. I guess it’s called Cajun-California cuisine because like everything else in California, Lady’s food is a mix of everything—a bit of Louisiana, some parts California with a bit of soul tossed in for good measure.

A few months ago, Lady opened up her place in downtown Oakland where fans of her cooking can now come in for lunch instead of just waiting for an invitation to one of her catered parties. I’m always on the look out for lunch options near my office in what people are calling “Uptown” (the Broadway and Grand Avenue area), but I often find I have to go downtown for some real food. So I headed to Lady’s Place, dreaming of a bowl of gumbo.

Lady’s Place is a quiet, tiny eatery highlighted by a colorful mural showcasing the jazz heritage of New Orleans. You order your lunch at the counter and then they bring your food to your table.

Gumbo is not on the every day menu. (It’s only served on Friday.) But when I arrived on one Gumbo Friday, I saw people munching on bowls with these giant crab claws on top. Hmmm, a bit too messy for a quick lunch, I thought to myself. So after a quick scan of her menu, I settled for the jambalaya, made with chicken and smoked-turkey sausage ($8.50).

While the service is friendly (the kind that’ll treat you like family), it can be a bit slow. I waited nearly 15 minutes for my jambalaya to be served. While this may not seem like a long time, it does mean you have to factor that in when you’re taking your lunch break. (Also, I doubt the jambalaya is made when it’s ordered, but is most likely just scooped out of a big pot made earlier in the day. So really, how long does it take to plate it up?)

When my plate of jambalaya finally arrived, it really did look like it was just scooped out of a pot and plopped on the plate. It was simple and very much like eating at your grandma’s.

Setting presentation aside, I dug into my jambalaya (which also came with cornbread and a side salad of chopped head lettuce). It was charmingly tasty with a mild-to-medium spiciness to it. I actually probably could have done with more spice. (That’s probably what the bottle of Louisiana’s Best Crystal hot sauce on the table was for.) Also, the jambalaya wasn’t very complex. It was simply a mix of rice, chicken, sausage, and celery bits with seasoning and a bay leaf (which they forgot to remove before serving).

Despite the lackluster jambalaya, I decided to return on Bar-B-Q Wednesday for some southern BBQ. This time I brought along my co-worker Sue, who I lured to Lady’s Place with the promise of fried chicken on the menu. (Since I don’t eat fried foods, I figured she could be my taste-tester.)

When we arrived and ordered our lunches, I went ahead and got a plate of BBQ chicken ($8.50) because I don’t eat a lot of beef and the ribs would be too messy. (Again, I had to go back to work.) Sue ended up not ordering the fried chicken because Lady’s Place only offers chicken wings and Sue doesn’t eat wings. (Too much work for the meat, she says.) So I convinced her to order the muffaleta sandwich. Sue had never heard of the muffaleta ($5.75), but I recalled seeing it on a “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” episode and I told her that it was a very New Orleans kind of sandwich.

When our food arrived, Sue tried her muffaleta, which looked much smaller than what Bobby Flay made. (A muffaleta is made up of layers of meats and cheeses that are accented by a vinegar-type dressing.) She didn’t like the bread, which was a bit stale, and the sandwich overall tasted a bit dry. I felt bad that I convinced her to try it. Maybe she should have gone for a po’-boy (another traditional New Orleans sandwich made of some kind of fried seafood or beef in a roll).

My BBQ chicken was a large plate of tender goodness. Again, it looked like it was a plate my grandmother put together for me, but the chicken was tender and the BBQ sauce was a nice balance of sugar and vinegar. While I can’t say it was the best BBQ in the Bay Area (it probably could have been better with a bit more smoke flavor), it was enjoyable.

Side note: When I first visited Lady's Place, the smooth sounds of jazz could be heard in the eating area. But during this second visit with Sue, the restaurant's flat screen TV blasted a news program during lunch. Is this a sports bar or jazz place? I hope it's more the latter.

Lady’s Place is the kind of family-run, small business that you want to support. But the inconsistency in the dishes and the high prices (entrees run between $8.50 and $9.50) for a weekday lunch makes this spot an occasional visit instead of a regular must try.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (tasty but simple meals)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Lady's Place in Oakland

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