A Rocky and Carlos-style joint on a state highway in rural Mississippi?
The Islenos have been in Southeast Louisiana for 200 years now and it’s starting to look like they’re going to fit in. They’re hunters, fishermen and trappers of the first order who’ve settled down in places like Shell Beach, Delacroix Island or Yscloskey to make their way in this world.
If you want a peek back in time to what Spanish Colonial Louisiana looked like this is where the final traces lie.Walking into the small, tidy restaurant we’re immediately greeted like long-lost cousins. We’ve been on the phone with owners Bobbie Schmitt and Michelle Bergeron on and off for the past half hour as we got turned around and ended up way on the other side of Picayune, far from JC’s homey little dining room.
We quickly settle in amid a flurry of ‘glad to have y’alls’.
We’ve eaten tamales from some of the finest sources scattered about Texas and the Deep South but this is the first time we’ve ever encountered Isleno-style. Beef is finely ground and heavily seasoned with garlic, salt and onion then rolled in corn meal before being cooked for four hours in a crockpot. We remark on the tangy, vinegar flavor and are informed ‘that’s the Valentina…hey, she’s making some right now, come on back to the kitchen’
Sure enough a worker is in the back of the house toiling over a fresh batch so we all stand about for a moment gawping over her labor. Sure enough, a big jar of Valentina Hot Sauce figures mightily into the recipe.After tearing through a half dozen tamales we order a pair of fried shrimp and fried catfish po boys then sit back while Bobbie Schmitt tells us about her life growing up as an Isleno in Louisiana.
Even a decade later, Katrina is a hot topic and Schmitt is eager to share her tale including that of her mother who lived in a FEMA trailer for two and a half years. Miss Bobbie’s mom as well as her mom is the well-spring of all the foods coming out of JC’s kitchen.
How does Isleno cuisine go over in Mississippi? It remains to be seen as they’ve only been open as a full-service restaurant for the past four months. Prior to that they earned their living selling only sno-balls and tamales. This is an archetypal restaurant model that you see a lot of in Southeast Louisiana. Sell a plate of cheap tamales then coat the patron’s fires below with shaved ice bathed in fruit syrup and condensed milk.Schmitt still makes regular journeys back to da Parish to source her seafood. We remark on how fresh tasting the catfish is and she replies that it was just caught the day before. Her family still goes out into the swamps, estuaries and bayous nearly everyday to trawl seafood from the waters.
This is no ordinary catfish po boy. The meat of the fish has a dark, charcoal gray stripe that some folks may find off-putting. That funky taste that you normally get with the gray meat cat is absent however. This is primal catfish, wild caught, the kind you used to regularly get hereabouts but is now a vanishing style.
The shrimp too is wrestled from local waters and has a deeply satisfying briny flavor accented simply with a dredge featuring little more than salt and pepper.
A single po boy order brings with it two small sandwiches on Mexican bolillo rolls firmly breaking with the New Orleans tradition of either Leidenheimer or Gendusa being the bread of choice.A side of mac and cheese is a straight riff on the Rocky and Carlos style with shells being drenched in queso then baked til firm and chewy. Top flight.
A bit of lagniappe comes trotting out in the form of a popping-hot soft shell crab, once again, freshly harvested from St Bernard Parish. It’s perfectly fried and bursting with crab fat and hot clean oil.
Schmitt explains that many of her family members quit school after 8th grade to ‘go fishing’. That’s all they know, and to this day it’s how they earn their living; rising at dawn and slipping out into the waters of the Parish to spend the day hauling in catfish, crabs and shrimp.A woman comes bursting in from a roiling summer storm and is immediately hailed as the ‘pie lady’ We relieve her of a creamy slab of key lime coconut pastry that may not be the prettiest dessert we’ve eaten but it does remind us of the Baptist church homecomings from our youth.
Mother and daughter Islenos in rural Pearl River county serving a mashup of Canary Island food alongside Cajun standard-bearers with a touch of St Bernard Parish hotplate? That’s the culinary world that Bobbie Schmitt and Michelle Bergeron have created and live in in Picayune, Mississippi.
3017 Hwy 43 South