A Lunchtime Institution Set to Overstuff Its Last Po' Boy
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
Anthony and Gail Uglesich
Published: April 27, 2005
SAM UGLESICH grew up among mariners and fishermen off the coast of Croatia on rocky Dugi Otok, whose name means "long island," surrounded by the azure waters of the Adriatic. Twice he set out for the United States. The first time, he jumped ship in New York, but was caught and sent home. The second time, he made his break in New Orleans, then as now a more permissive city, and got away with it.
Naturally enough, he opened a seafood restaurant in his adopted city, specializing in the local shrimp, soft-shell crabs, lake trout and oysters. The year was 1924, the place South Rampart Street; Louis Armstrong had played gigs a few doors away.
Three years later, he moved to a modest frame cottage on Baronne Street. There, as the neighborhood around them crumbled, he and his son, Anthony, along with Anthony's wife, Gail, gradually built a reputation of legendary proportions. Grander establishments like Galatoire's, Commander's Palace and Antoine's loomed larger in the guidebooks, but the exacting standards of little Uglesich's (pronounced YOU-gull-sitch's) - everything bracingly fresh from lake and gulf and bayou, nothing frozen or imported, and absolutely no shortcuts - generated greater buzz.
Without benefit of advertising, word of Uglesich's big, tan, glistening oysters, its sweet, plump crawfish balls, its searing shrimp Uggie and its overstuffed yet feather-light po' boys spread across the city and then across the country. It mattered not to most people that it took no credit cards and served neither dessert nor coffee.
Five days a week, 11 months a year, lines have formed outside the ramshackle building, which displays a sign from the long-defunct Jax Brewery in one window. On Good Friday this year, customers began arriving at 9 in the morning, even though the restaurant does not open for lunch, the only meal it serves, until 10:30. Soon there were more than 200 people in line, and the sun was setting as the last of the day's 400-odd clients were being served.
All this with just 10 tables inside and 6 on the sidewalk outside.
Soon Uglesich's will close forever, at least in its present form. Anthony and Gail Uglesich are exhausted, worn out by years of rising at 4:30 and working flat-out all day. Balding, bearlike, Mr. Uglesich, 66, told me he would shut the doors in mid-May, but he has renewed his liquor license, just in case he finds retirement miserable.
"I may go nuts," he said at the end of a particularly brutal day. "I doubt it, but I won't know until I try it. If I do climb the walls, I might try packaging our sauces for retail sale, or maybe do some catering - people are always offering me thousands of dollars to cook for their dinner parties - or reopen here for four days a week, with limited hours and a very limited menu, just appetizers. No more of this, though."
Mrs. Uglesich, 64, a petite woman whose regular customers call her Miss Gail, put the situation bluntly. "Our bodies are telling us we can't take it anymore," she said in the soft, liquid accent that marks her as a New Orleans native. "Anthony has missed only two days' work since we were married, and that was 41 years ago."
Neither of the Uglesiches' two children - Donna, 40, a businesswoman, and John, 35, author of "Uglesich's Restaurant Cookbook" (Pelican Publishing) - has shown any desire to take over the business. "It's too hard," Mrs. Uglesich said.
With many New Orleans restaurants, including some of the most famous ones, relying these days on frozen crawfish tails and frozen soft-shell crabs and on shrimp and crabmeat imported from Thailand or China, Uglesich's stands out more than ever.
"Look," Mr. Uglesich said, peering through wire-rimmed glasses, "90 percent of the shrimp eaten in this country is imported. Local crawfish costs me $7 a pound, compared with $2.50 imported. People in restaurants here know they can get away with things. But I'd pay $10 for Louisiana crawfish, if that's what it takes. Otherwise, what's going to happen to our local fishermen? When we're gone, I don't know."