An Urban Legend
For a neighborhood seafood joint, it doesn't get any better than Uglesich's
By Brett Anderson, The Times-Picayune
Warchester! Come on! Help me out!"
Meet Anthony Uglesich: Second-generation restaurateur, local seafood
evangelist ("I don't buy Chinese crawfish. It's against my religion"),
darling of foodies from Martha Stewart to Paul Varisco, a local regular
after whom Uglesich named a glorious dish of pan-fried trout topped with
grilled shrimp and new potatoes. Many consider Uglesich brilliant.
"Get me some Warchester!"
OK, so he struggles to pronounce Worcestershire. He's also a bit of a crank.
But can you blame him? He's at work at 4 a.m. and often doesn't leave until
it's dark again. Yet still people rib him for only keeping Uglesich's open
"I'm in here every day of the week," Uglesich recently told me over the
phone. "In 47 years, I think I've missed two days."
He wasn't griping so much as trying to explain the almost freakish nature of
Uglesich's national renown. He traces his success to hands-on commitment:
Both he and his wife, Gail, stage-manage a daily "lunch" rush that can last
more than five hours. In their downtime, the couple take turns thinking up
new dishes such as Muddy Water, an unexplainably delicious concoction
involving trout sauced with a reduction of chicken stock, anchovies, garlic
and gutted jalapenos.
The restaurant was opened in 1927 by Sam Uglesich, Anthony's Croatian
immigrant father. For decades, Uglesich's chugged along like so many other
small New Orleans restaurants. It was family run. Its customers were people
in the neighborhood. Its menu contained little more than fried seafood
po-boys and plate dinners.
When Anthony took over the restaurant in the late ‘60s, the central-city
neighborhood was in decline. In the ‘70s he started to tinker with the menu.
The neighborhood went into further decline. By the ‘90s, Anthony and Gail
were the only Uglesiches interested in the family business and the
neighborhood was a paragon of urban decay. At the same time, Uglesich's
found its way onto the to-do list of just about anyone who came to New
Orleans hoping to experience something real.
This improbable series of events led to Uglesich's ascension from
neighborhood institution to a kind of temple. It's where people go to pay
homage to the city's warts-and-all splendor, an activity that almost always
involves eating something fried.
In a city that will never run short of restaurants claiming po-boy
supremacy, Uglesich's stand-apart. The extra degrees of greatness are earned
in the fryer. Order the fried softshell crab -- in sandwich form or alone
with some of the house slaw and tartar sauce -- and what emerges is a
creature with a distinctly darker shell than one normally finds, cooked not
quite brown but to a savage, Coppertone tan.
There's no arguing that the food gains something from Uglesich's singular
environment. New Orleanians like their neighborhood joints to be worse for
the wear -- think Domilise's and Franky & Johnny's -- and Uglesich's
heralded ramshackleness is, if anything, undersung.
Judging from the cases of beer in the corner and the sacks of potatoes and
onions clogging the entryway, the place is lacking storage space. The floor
is straight-up concrete, and the lighting has the look of being filtered
through soot. This time of year, count on it being busy, which means waiting
for your table on the uneven sidewalk and breathing in a hot bisque of
humidity, car exhaust, street dust and, one hopes, oxygen. Gripe all you
want about tourists adopting the restaurant (Uglesich figures 80 percent of
his customers are out-of-towners).
The beauty of the setting is that it underscores Uglesich's greatest
accomplishment, which is proving that culinary ambition is not exclusive to
high-brows. Enjoyed with a glass from a list of surprisingly high-quality
wines (or, if you prefer, a bottle of Chimay beer), dishes like the hot
pesto-swathed oysters and trout Anthony, an exquisitely prepared filet of
butter-grilled fish set under a tangle of sweet onions, are as refined as
anything you'll find in, say, one of Emeril's places.
That said, the real appeal here isn't that the food is only a nice plate and
a fancy garnish away from costing twice as much someplace else. Uglesich
innovates unlike any other neighborhood restaurant proprietor I know of, but
his food is far from precious. Shrimp Uggie, for example, is a devilish
concoction of head-on crustaceans slicked in an oil so spicy that it could
only be red.
The crunchy shrimp-and-sausage patty and the fried block of grits under a
cloak of shrimp in cream sauce further demonstrate the kitchen's frying
expertise, but Uglesich's affection for oil extends beyond the stuff found
in bubbling vats. The house versions of barbecue shrimp and oysters are
testaments to the grandeur of olive oil infused with herbs as well as the
sublimity of fresh seafood.
It's rare that you find food this intensely flavored without it being
brutish. The remoulade, best enjoyed over shrimp and fried green tomatoes, a
dish Uglesich admits he copied from Upperline, carried the bright citrusy
notes of good wine vinegar. The flavor of firm, sweetly juicy white corn
came through clearly with every bite of crawfish maque choux. The secret of
Uglesich's improbably light pan-fried fish? "Egg Beaters," Anthony says. "It
holds bread crumbs. Plus, it's healthy and it's pretty."
While Uglesich's menu should certainly be bronzed for inclusion in some
yet-to-be-created restaurant hall of fame, not everything on it is
fantastic. A recent order of crab au gratin amounted to a glob of
fish-flavored cheese. I have yet to try an Uglesich pasta dish that I'd
order again. And while the best plate of raw oysters I've ever eaten was
enjoyed at one of the plastic tables outside, I've also had a batch that
suggested the quality can wane.
One of the oyster shuckers runs a side hustle selling his mother-in-law's
sweet potato pies, a stash of which he keeps in a box atop a stack of
Heineken cases. But dessert is not an "official" course at Uglesich's.
Anthony has enough trouble turning over tables without giving people license
to linger longer.
And with none of his offspring interested in getting into the family
business, the time is near when he'll serve nothing at all. Curating what
amounts to the finest hole-in-the-wall restaurant you're ever likely to
visit could turn any Teddy into a bear. This June, Uglesich will close for
the summer. Next June, or maybe the June after that, Anthony could close for
"You get to a point where you can't do it anymore," he said.
1238 Baronne St. (at Erato), New Orleans
Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11:00-4:00; no credit cards.
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One of the great things about New Orleans cooking is that we treat not only our haute cuisine, but also our everyday, with total seriousness. Take for example the poor boy. 'Nuff said. But when you take your poor boy, by all means take it at Uglesich's - by far the funkiest and the best poor boy joint in New Orleans.
Anthony Uglesich's parents opened in 1924. In Louisiana, Yugoslavians (as we once called them) are the heart and soul of the seafood industry. For one thing they make up 90% of the oyster fishermen at the mouth of the Mississippi River where, as we all know, the most succulent and the saltiest oysters in the world are farmed. So when a Yugoslavian opens those dozen raw oysters you're slurping, or confects that oyster loaf (that is, poor boy) you're crunching, you know you're in good hands. Now situated just outside the business district, Uglesich's was once on the other side of Canal on Rampart Street. When Anthony's mother told me that, it occurred to me that that was the time and that was the place where jazz came into its own. "Sure," she said, "there were plenty musicians around. Once my husband was watching TV and ol' Louis Armstrong came on. 'Look,' he said, 'There's a man I've shucked a lot of oysters for.'" Once Satchmo's favorite oyster bar, Uglesich now often serves the musical elite of New York and LA who, haivng "discovered" it now often throw as large a party as you can imagine is such a little place. Those parties are private of course; but if he's in town you're quite likely to see Aaron Neville who grew up nearby. Maybe it's the oysters that give Aaron that lovely voice. . . .
Be forewarned however, Uglesich's locale and decor are part of the reason we call it funky. Obviously Anthony has used his profits to send his kids to college rather than to renovate. But locally we think the look - with cases of Barq's root beer stacked on the concrete floor of the 10 table dining room - is just right. Too, be warned to come early or late. After 11:30 and until 2:00 you will wait to be seated, or even to stand at the tiny oyster bar - there's room maybe for three if you don't mind an elbow in your ribs. But come expecting to see the political and business elite of New Orleans. What to order? Well, or course expect nothing but seafood, most of it fried (though all fried in canola oil), and all of it with generous caloric counts. The only menu is on the back wall which includes this classic placard, a favorite of many New Orleanians:
Grilled and Spicey!
Trout Anthony $ 8. 75
Shrimp Gail $ 8. 75
Anthony and Gail $10. 75
By the way, don't believe a word of it: Gail and Anthony are not the spiciest, but rather the sweetest couple you'll ever meet. The poor boys are hard to get around because they are so outstanding, and hard to get through because they are so large. Still, it would be a shame to miss their appetizers. Anthony's shrimp remoulade, rich in Creole mustard, paprika, and minced green onions, rivals - dare I say it - the remoulade at Ruth's Chris. And Anthony and his wife Gail have added some incredible and extremely creative tidbits on the appetizer menu. If your pockets are deep ask for an appetizer platter which might include some or all of the following: fried green tomatoes topped with grilled shrimp and their exquisite remoulade; fried mirliton (a favorite local squash) covered with crawfish sauce; or toasted French bread rounds with shrimp and black olives in a vinaigrette. You may not get to your main course!
But their new plate lunches are exquisite, too. Paul's Fantasy - named after a local businessman who eats there daily with his extended family - is delicious: grilled shrimp over speckled trout with brabant potatoes. Their soft-shelled crab is truly the most succulent you will ever put in your mouth. But your best bet is to put yourself in Anthony's hands: give him the general directions your tastes go in and he'll send out what just came in off the truck from down the river that morning.
At some point, however, the point here is to eat some oysters, raw, fried, or sauteed. After all, who could pass up the opportunity to eat oysters where Baronne meets Erato - the muse of love poetry.
1238 Baronne St. (corner Erato)
New Orleans, LA USA
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My favorite story about Uglesich's sums up the classic impressions of the place very quickly. A nice older lady called up food critic Tom Fitzmorris' radio program and told him she wanted to take a couple of friends from out of town to some place in New Orleans that would be a bit of an adventure. Tom suggested Uglesich's. I chuckled as I drove along, thinking what a group of unsuspecting senior citizens would think of the place when they got there.
You see, Uglesich’s is a dump. Now, here in New Orleans, there are dumps and then there are dumps. Uglesich's is the standard by which all other dumps in town are measured. Located on the corner of Baronne and Erato (1238 Baronne), the Uglesich family has been making some of the best seafood sandwiches and plates here since 1924. Uglesich's has some great food, but it’s still a dump. The neighborhood around the place has really gone down the drain. Time and the expressway leading up to the Crescent City Connection bridge (over the Mississippi River) have separated the "central city" section of town from the Central Business District (CBD), and the housing projects around the neighborhood have encroached to the point where this is really not a very safe area to be in at night. Daytime's no big deal, however, as the crowds at lunch time at Uglesich's will testify. The restaurant fits into the dilapidated neighborhood quite nicely. The exterior hasn't been painted in 24 years, and it looks it. We New Orleanians pride ourselves on preferring less atmosphere in favor of better food and lower prices, but Uglesich's carries this to an extreme.
The bar runs down the left-hand side of the building from the door, long enough for about 6 or 7 people to stand at it. It then turns right for another eight feet or so, which is the oyster bar. The station for the oyster shucker is very important at Uglesich's, since freshness is very important to making this work. I stopped in relatively late (1:15), and the place was still pretty crowded. There were three parties ahead of me waiting to get one of the ten tables, all of which were occupied. Mrs. Gail Uglesich was working the bar with her husband, Mr. Anthony, and she took my order for an oyster po-boy, full sized. I also ordered a Barq's to drink. The menu is relatively easy to read, since it consists of a bunch of signs on the wall. There's a bit of a system to ordering and getting seated at Uglesich's when the place is crowded (and it always is): you place your order at the bar, then move up along the bar as tables clear and the people in line sit down. When you hit the end of the bar, you're up for a table. Since everything is cooked to order here, there's not much chance that your food will be ready before you sit down. This leaves you plenty of time to contemplate the decor behind the bar, which consists mainly of old plastic Falstaff beer trays mounted on the wall. This is a great place to listen in and absorb some New Orleans culture. Uglesich's is so small that there's no way you're going to have a private conversation. After about twenty minutes or so, a few tables cleared out, and I was able to sit down. My sandwich was about another twenty minutes in coming out from the kitchen after that. Most of the delay was because the place is small and it was crowded, but some of it was from some out-of-town woman who ordered a plate and what came out of the kitchen wasn't what she expected. It was a broiled fish dish, perhaps Trout Anthony (I was curious, but not so nosy that I was going to stick my nose in the plate!) I have no idea what she thought was wrong, but the chef actually came out from the kitchen to talk to her about it. The food looked OK to me. Anyway, once that was settled and the people who ordered ahead of me were served, my oyster po-boy came out.
I'm a firm believer that life is too short to wait long periods of time for food. That's one of the reasons I refused to eat at K-Paul's until he started taking reservations. I'm particularly fussy about this at lunch time, and am downright irascible if the lunch in question is a po- boy. With the exception of Uglesich's, of course. Oysters for a po-boy at Uglesich's are all but shucked to order. They don't leave the oyster bar until they're ready to cook your food. When the plate is set down in front of you, steam rises from the sandwich because it's that hot. There's ketchup on the table, but it would be a sin to cover oysters so perfectly breaded with such a condiment. Uglesich's puts out both Tabasco and Crystal hot sauces on the tables. This gives it a special place in my heart, because I don't care at all for Tabasco on prepared food. I prefer Crystal on sandwiches, red beans, etc., leaving Tabasco as a spice for cooking. Like any good po-boy place in town, Uglesich's uses high-quality french bread for their sandwiches, warmed just a bit. Chased with a cold Barq's and you get a truly platonic meal.
And it better be, because there surely isn't any ambiance. The floor's concrete, the bar is covered with sheet metal, the tables and chairs are all old wood, and the plates are low-rent. So what. The food rivals Galatoire's. Since I was by myself, I passed on extras such as onion rings (large, beer-battered) or french fries (big, fresh-cut). The portions are just too large for one person and are best enjoyed split among two or three.
Service at Uglesich's is haphazard. There's only one waiter/bus- boy/jack-of-all-trades working the tables. He gets a bit of help from the guy behind the oyster bar, but the oyster shucker's got duties of his own. Miss Gail is behind the bar taking orders, and Mr. Anthony rotates in-between the front and the back. I paid Mrs. Uglesich when I ordered, so I didn't have to wait for the check when I was finished. I'd advise you to do the same, since trying to get back through to the bar to settle up can be difficult. My sandwich and drink, plus tax, came to $8.77, and I left a buck-fifty for a tip. As po-boy lunches go, this is on the high side, but not out of bounds. Mother's sandwiches are in the $6-$7 range these days. Plates at Uglesich's run around $10 (Trout Anthony and Shrimp Gail, the house specialties are $9.75 each). Many uninitiated visitors are shocked by the prices, mainly because they don't expect that level in such a dump.
Uglesich's is open for lunch (the posted hours are 11:00am-4:00pm) Monday through Friday. I overheard Mr. Anthony saying that they were going to experiment with opening up on the first Saturday of each month, to accommodate the requests from regulars to open on weekends. If you're in town on the first Saturday of the month, give a call and they might be open. Dress is casual, of course, in typical New Orleans fashion. Cash only, no credit cards.
Getting to Uglesich's: From the Quarter, Baronne St. is what Dauphine St. turns into when it crosses Canal (just like Bourbon turns into Carondelet and Royal into St. Charles). While twelve blocks off of Canal doesn't sound all that far away, the neighborhood is really pretty seedy. It's not a twelve-block walk you'd do for a mid-morning stroll. Catch the St. Charles streetcar to Erato, then walk the three blocks down, or better still, take a car or cab straight to the restaurant. If you're a seafood lover, or just an admirer of things that are completely New Orleans, you'll enjoy Uglesich's.