At Jazz Fest favorite Liuzza’s by the Track, the torch is passed so a legend can carry on
The rusty-red gumbo was mottled with pepper and herbs, pink shrimp and ruffled, just-cooked oysters. The people slurping it up wore shirts patterned with magnolias and red beans, alligators and watermelons, flying their Jazz Fest colors for a festival that wasn’t happening.
New specials penned on the board for duck Rangoons and hot sausage banh mi turned a few heads. But, mostly, the people visiting were focused on rekindling a familiar rite of spring by different means.
This was Liuzza’s by the Track on the first weekend that, by custom, should have brought Jazz Fest. Of course, the event has been postponed to October, marking the second consecutive season that the pandemic has scrubbed it from this city’s ritualistic events calendar.
Located a few blocks from the festival gates, Liuzza’s by the Track in normal times is a Jazz Fest rallying point for some, a destination in its own right for others. It’s the pre-party, the after-party and its own party. If it was any more a part of the festival experience it would need its own spot on the schedule cubes.
Yet the second spring without Jazz Fest here pales in comparison to the other difference at Liuzza’s by the Track this year.
It is the first one without Jimmie Lemarie, who created the restaurant along with his friend Billy Gruber. Now both are gone.
Lemarie died in January at age 72. Gruber died five years earlier at age 69.
Starting in 1997, the two turned an old-time barroom into one of the essential New Orleans neighborhood joints, a place that elevates beloved local flavors by doing them right and adding an indelible coat of personality.
To sit in its small dining room, under vintage Jazz Fest posters and race track photos, sipping a frosted schooner of beer, eating a po-boy, listening to the Neville Brothers on the jukebox, gazing through broad windows at a street scene of jasmine-strung porches and familial neighbors passing by in this part of Faubourg St. John can feel like having a box seat on the New Orleans good life.
Eventually, Liuzza’s landed in food guides and travel stories and earned a following far beyond its neighborhood.
To James Gonczi, though, Liuzza’s by the Track was always “Uncle Jimmie’s place.”
Now 32 and a practicing attorney, the Lakeview native is Lemarie’s nephew, part of his sprawling extended local family. He worked at Liuzza’s in high school and college.
Today Gonczi is in charge of keeping Liuzza’s by the Track going.
That’s a role he hoped he’d take on, some day, when the time was right. The time when he was needed came earlier than anyone thought. But Gonczi didn’t hesitate.
“There was no doubt about it, I was 100% in,” he said from the bar one day last week. “I love this place. These neighborhood places are like the fabric of our city. I didn’t want anyone to come in and change it.”
He took over at a daunting time. Two things that always bolstered the business are Jazz Fest and the Fair Grounds horse racing season, which this year was held without spectators. Locals and regulars are now the whole business.
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To give them more reasons to come back, Gonczi has been working with his longtime friend Michael Latham, a veteran of local restaurants, to come up with new specials for the board.
That explains the duck Rangoons, made with ground duck sausage and havarti cream cheese, bacon and poblano peppers. Sometimes cheesy crawfish Rangoons are on the specials menu, too.
The hot sausage banh mi starts with Marciante’s sausage formed into patties and spiked up with ginger and more seasonings, then packed into a Leidenheimer pistolette with fresh cilantro and carrots and mayo. Grilled alligator sausage patties with crunchy, sour chow chow went into another recent po-boy special. Sometimes the straight-up shrimp po-boy gets a tangy bath of Buffalo sauce.
The daily menu has not changed though, nor has the talent over the skillets and pots who produce its signatures — the distinctive gumbo, the buttery landslide of its BBQ shrimp po-boy, the garlic-laden roast beef or the thin-sliced, thick-stacked Reuben.
That’s the work of Burnetter McMillian, who has been at Liuzza’s from the start, and her compatriot in the kitchen, a man who goes only by Roadrunner. He’s has been cooking here long enough that even his nickname has a nickname — everyone calls him Road.
Liuzza’s by the Track has been around in one form or another since the 1940s. It’s not related to Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar on Bienville Street — which is for sale but, it bears repeating because of inaccurate internet reports elsewhere, is very much still open for business.
Liuzza’s by the Track is more than just a beer stop en route to Jazz Fest. It’s a clubhouse for a neighborhood when that neighborhood is transformed by the festival crowds. Even when Jazz Fest is in full swing, you see people here with no tickets and no desire to find them, just having a good time in the widening shade of the sidewalk, watching festival people sashay by as porch bands tune up and street vendors set up for the after-fest rush.
Some of that has been happening this year anyway. The festival is silent, but the neighborhood has been buzzing still with people trying to wring some semblance of Jazz Fest joy from these times.
Even before the erstwhile festival weekends arrived, Gonczi decided to extend Liuzza’s hours a bit. It’s open Sundays now for the foreseeable future, but with a different menu. Liuzza’s hosts a crawfish boil and serves one-pot dishes, like jambalaya and crawfish pasta. That gives the kitchen some time off, while the bar staff can add some needed shifts.
Taking the party to the sidewalk feels a lot like Liuzza’s at Jazz Fest time. Still, Gonczi said he’s approaching any changes like this as trial runs, to be assessed by the regulars as he goes.