The scene: Li’l Dizzy’s Café seems to have been a part of New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, located just five blocks from the French Quarter, forever. But he’s only 15, which makes him relatively young by New Orleans standards.
Perhaps the reason it looks like such a landmark is its owners’ deep roots in the local restaurant community and their dedication to preserving its Creole culinary traditions. In any case, Li’l Dizzy’s is a neighborhood institution that appeals to couples as well as families, colleagues on lunch break and even local politicians. It’s also a surprisingly good choice for solo travelers.
Exuding an intimate and warm charm, it’s the kind of place where every guest is greeted as ‘honest’ or ‘handsome’ by the gregarious staff. It’s a large room with the lunch buffet in the back and lots of tables squeezed together, plus a few simpler metal tables on the sidewalk.
The decor is evenly split between hymns to New Orleans saints and former President Barack Obama, with a display case full of helmets and plenty of framed photos and letters from the former commander-in-chief. The ceiling is made up of simple white acoustic tiles, though a few have been redone as colorful and seemingly random overhead murals arranged around swirling ceiling fans, so be sure to look up.
Li’l Dizzy’s is open for breakfast and lunch only, until 2:00 p.m. daily, with a dinner-style menu. But it’s best known for its all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which almost everyone orders – and that’s why he visited.
Reason to visit: Fried chicken, gumbo and other daily buffets.
The food: Acknowledging new arrivals, the staff here don’t just sing the buffet’s praises; they insist on giving first timers a pass, showing all the dishes and even helping you get yourself a bowl of okra to start. This is a key element of the charm of Li’l Dizzy’s: the warm welcome and the omnipresent good humor. I overheard a waitress reassuring a customer, “Don’t worry, I have a wheelbarrow; I’ll get you out of here when you’re done.
The buffet is small and simple, with a streamlined salad bar station at one end, the main event in half a dozen adjacent warmers under a hood, and just beyond that are appetizers and dessert. The former is a hot dish of rice and another of okra, while the finale is usually a hot dish and usually a variety of bread pudding.
The white rice goes in a bowl, the okra on top, and it’s a highlight not to be missed. It’s rich and dark and very chunky, with big chunks of meaty andouille sausage, prawns and crab still in the shell. The okra is excellent, just a little spicy, and no one will mind if you come back for seconds (or thirds).
The buffet always features fried chicken, the signature dish and one of the main reasons people come here. It’s also just a little spicy, with big chunks of meat that stay juicy beneath the crispy exterior. The food here isn’t too hot, but it does have some spiciness, and for those who want more, there’s plenty of Crystal hot sauce for everyone.
Some of the other dishes change – but not drastically – with a meaty second starter, like ribs. Instead of being smoked, Dizzy’s version is very flavorful: slowly cooked in a gravy-like sauce until it falls off the bone. There’s the mac and cheese, so thick it’s served with a scoop of ice cream and so cheesy you’ll find chunks of still-unmelted cheese sprinkled all over the place.
There’s always a soup of the day: some days it’s vegetables, other times it’s chicken noodles or beans, like a creamy white bean stew with chunky chunks of sausage. The vegetables on offer also rotate regularly, with mustard greens being a crowd favorite. It’s simple, it’s comfort food, but it’s good and authentically local.
Even the very simple salad bar – basically a large bowl of iceberg lettuce with smaller bowls of shredded cheese and a few hot pepperoncini peppers – offers a unique offering that you should definitely try. It’s a bowl of olive salad, or giardiniera, the unusual flavor that makes New Orleans’ signature sandwich, the muffuletta, so special. Here it’s offered as a salad topping, and it’s a great one that really brightens up even the most basic lettuce.
Despite the temptation of fried chicken, ribs, mac and cheese, and more, it’s worth leaving room for dessert, which is always tasty, especially when it comes to bread pudding.
Like many people, I usually associate buffets with Las Vegas or Chinese restaurants – rather than an unforgettable dining experience. Il Dizzy’s Café is an exception to this rule. Being able to sample a manageable variety of real New Orleans food in such a friendly atmosphere – for under $15, no less – is a culinary travel experience not to be missed.
Worthy of pilgrimage? : No, but if you want a real taste of New Orleans both on your plate and around you for a very reasonable price, head here.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 1500 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans; 504-569-8997; https://www.lildizzyscafe.net/
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