Designated Diner: Nora Daniels, Smith College student and summer editorial writer at ViaNolaVie in 2018
The restaurant: Bearcat Café, 2521 Jena Street, in the burgeoning Freret corridor.
Its MO: Fresh, made-in-house dishes fall into categories: Good Cat fare is lighter, Bad Cat offerings more hearty – and indulgent. Vegan and gluten-free options are marked on the menu, which lists breakfast choices on one side, lunch selections on the other. It’s named for the owner’s cat, who isn’t called Bearcat but looks like one.
Why Nora chose it: I saw on Instagram that DJ Soul Sister came here. That’s enough for me.
Why else: Because I’m vegan, sort of. I do eat fish and shellfish, but not dairy or meat. Whatever that makes me. I’m jealous of New Orleans stomachs, because I can’t eat all that fried food. But finding vegetarian options here hasn’t been as challenging as I thought.
Her go-to restaurants: Poke Loa and Lilly’s, for starters. “I eat Vietnamese a lot. At Lilly’s, they remembered me 6 months after my first visit, and again 6 months later after my second.” Bennachin is on her bucket list, as are a couple of local Ethiopian places.
What she looks for in a restaurant: Food is paramount, with a lean toward more flavorful cuisines like Asian or Mediterranean. Seafood when it’s a splurge, but great dives get a “hell, yes.” New Orleans, she finds, “is cheap and easy and everything here tastes better.”
Good Cat: The Chia Pudding one-ups your standard yogurt/fruit/granola breakfast. Three layers include a topping of fresh fruit – peaches, grapes, kiwi, blueberries, cherries, skins on — a center sprinkling of crunchy granola and a base of creamy chia seed pudding. “I like weird textured things, so I love this. Also because it’s not pretentious, just beautifully garnished and presented without being too fancy. ”
Vegan quesadillas filled with a scrambled tofu, cashew queso and avocados offer a savory take on a Mexican classic. “But nothing here tries to be a veggie version of favorites dishes – rather, these entrees are put together creatively with vegetables as the foundations.”
“Get anything with mushrooms,” a neighboring diner advised, and the Portobello Philly proved his point. Succulently sautéed mushrooms and tiny sliced pickles tucked into a soft French roll arrived beside rosemary encrusted fried potatoes, crinkly outside and spongy within. “I love the idea of a killer veggie po-boy. Why not?”
Bad Cat: The fried pickled okra is worth a trip alone. Lightly battered, it arrives with two sauces, a vegan ranch and peppery peri peri with a hint of sweetness. The pickling packs internal flavor, and frying the whole okra makes for easy dipping. This is not your mama’s Southern fried okra, but it goes one better.
The salmon with avocado cream is drizzled with ancho honey and sits atop a plate of couscous. It’s a little heartier dish for those looking for more substance.
Thirst quenchers: Topo Chico is “like drinking sparklers.” No wonder it’s the trending sparkling water. Bearcat carries an expansive selection of micro-sourced coffees from Equator Coffee Co and a wide variety of loose-leaf teas and house-made bottled beverages, such as mango lemonade or coconut cold brew. And seasonal kombucha.
The ambiance: Casual, busy, noisy, with all-day breakfast and a busy business lunch. It’s the kind of place where dishes clink and you hear the cooks talking behind the serving counter. An outdoor porch offers an al fresco option, and a sprinkling of couches and coffee tables lends a laid-back touch.
The bottom line: “Five million stars.” More objectively, a good casual full-service café-diner for those in search of fresh options, both literally and figuratively.