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Food & Travel

In a tight space, jambalaya and gumbo rule

Coop’s Place is a big surprise in the Big Easy

Coop's Place is an unassuming looking bar-restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Coop's Place is an unassuming looking bar-restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (Jeff Cooperman)
By Ann Trieger Kurland
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — There’s so much cooking talent in this city that deciding where to dine can make your head spin. The Big Easy is home to celebrity restaurateurs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme; venerable establishments like Commander’s Palace, Antoine’s, and Brennan’s; and places run by younger award-winning chefs.

It was a yen for gumbo and a tip from a hotel bartender that led us to Coop’s Place in the French Quarter, a slightly dingy and raucous bar-restaurant. At first glance it looks like a dive, but the food is memorable. Coop’s is a beloved hangout for locals and out-of-town regulars. While a line of tourists might spill into the street at night — there are no reservations — those in the know walk past the line and head for the bar or perch themselves in the back near the pool table. On any given night there is no shortage of resident characters. Bowls of gumbo with just enough spice to make your tongue quiver, and dishes of rabbit and andouille jambalaya are so delicious you’ll dream about them.

The restaurant is on busy Decatur Street, a few blocks from the French Market, where people queue up to buy beignets and cafe au lait at the famed Cafe Du Monde. Coop’s is owned by Jeff Cooperman, who explains why the place is full. “Our prices are cheap and the portions are big,’’ he says.

Both true, but the cooking reflects a high regard for ingredients and flavor. These are recipes that have been worked out over time. Smoked duck quesadilla, in which tender slices of the meat are folded into a moist tortilla, has an orange sauce and a slight kick. “It’s a reworking of the classic French dish, duck a l’orange,’’ says Cooperman. Another appetizer, lamb ribs with a red pepper jelly dipping sauce, is a juicy blend of smoky and sweet flavors.

A dark brown roux gives gumbo its richness; white fish flavors the broth; shrimp, crab claws, and okra make it dense. Coop’s cook prepares eight to 10 gallons a day.

Heaping plates of Cajun fried chicken with creamy coleslaw is worth ordering, as is redfish meuniere. But jambalaya supreme is the standout dish here, a highly seasoned and generous plate of rabbit, sausage, shrimp, crawfish, and house-smoked tasso ham, with vegetables and rice. Add a glass of Abita, a local brew.

There are no desserts, but occasionally a homemade cheesecake appears on the board where daily specials are scrawled. Perhaps Cooperman, who opened the restaurant 28 years ago, doesn’t want tourists to linger. The dining room seats about 40 people at tables close to each other, and the bar seats 15, so people often talk with those sitting nearby.

“This is a down-home place and you’re going to be treated like you’re at home,’’ says Chuck Rogers, a longtime regular who now helps with the restaurant’s website.

“The waitresses can be snarky when it’s busy,’’ he says, “especially if you ask for rabbit jambalaya without the rabbit.’’

Coop’s Place 1109 Decatur St., New Orleans, 504-525-9053, www.coopsplace.net

Ann Trieger Kurland can be reached at atrieger@comcast.net.