Designated Diner: Happy Johnson
Day jobs: Leadership speaker, children’s book author and co-founder of Team Happy Foundation, established in 2005 to inspire the next generation of first responders through mentorship, entrepreneurial training and advocacy.
More about that: Happy drove an Emergency Response Vehicle after Hurricane Katrina. Those experiences stay with you.
The restaurant: Café Dauphine, 5229 Dauphine St. in the Lower 9th Ward
Why he chose it: Because it has the best catfish in town. Hands down. It’s also walking distance from my house.
What he likes in a restaurant: If I’m going to give my soul and money to a place, I don’t want you to change things on me. My taste buds have expectations. I also look for fresh ingredients and a family feel. I like to go to a restaurant where I feel at home.
His go-to restaurants: For breakfast, L’il Dizzy’s, for the omelet station alone. I like crabmeat and shrimp and crawfish in an omelet cooked in cheesy garlic butter. There’s a new rib place I’ve been going to in Treme, called Whoodoo BBQ. It might just have the best beef ribs in town; I’m a dry-rub ribs guy. My other go-to is Bacchanal. They have a wonderful ceviche-style tuna with balsamic vinegar, tomatoes and cucumbers. And you get music with your meal.
The MO at Café Dauphine: A Creole Cajun take on Southern food. Owner Fred Henry explains that, “because we’re off the beaten path, I want to show people that there’s more to Southern food than fried chicken.”
Not so far off the beaten path: This 4-year-old 9th Ward eatery is making a name for itself, attracting not only many regulars from Holy Cross but also a fair share of NOLA visitors. “Just last week we had families from Iowa, Chicago, Germany and Norway,” says Fred. “Uber has been a great promoter.”
The vibe: A former corner grocery, the restaurant kept faith to its architectural authenticity on the exterior. The airy interior has gotten a makeover, with six new large windows washing the space in light, handcrafted tables made by Fred Henry, and an open kitchen. It has a friendly neighborhood vibe, low-key and intimate.
What’s good: About that catfish. “I’m a catfish guru,” says Happy, who rates his catch on texture and a light, from-scratch cornmeal batter. “How many places describe their catfish plate as golden?”
What else: The Redfish Florentine, chargrilled and topped with spinach, crawfish and a white wine cream sauce, is another standout, a richer cousin to its catfish kin. And fried shrimp demonstrate the same golden touch.
Asides: When it comes to accompaniments, what’s not to like? Creamy red beans, mashed potatoes laced with cheese and bacon, fries crisply done and dusted with parsley. Up the ante by adding sautéed onions and bell pepper to any of the above. The Lizardi rolls, named after the street where the Henrys grew up, give a New Orleans twist to an Asian staple: egg rolls filled with cabbage, crabmeat, shrimp and crawfish, served with a sweet chili sauce.
Sweet stuff: Hard choice, but Happy passed up the Chocolate Explosion Cake for the homemade Bread Pudding with Pecan Rum Sauce. Good call. Really good call.
The bottom line: Like its ambiance and its owners, Café Dauphine pays attention to its roots while bringing Southern cuisine into the 21st century.