Names of dishes roll off the tongue with touches of lyricism: gumbo, jambalaya, muffuletta, po-boy, étouffée, red beans and rice. The syllables are priceless--spoken fragments that could easily give birth to endless haiku.
Po-boy drowned in a
Jambalaya gumbo gloat
DaZa's New Orleans Soul Food
Gumbo (cup) $4.25
Red beans and rice $4.25
Seafood platter $14.95
Fried chicken with jambalaya $15.95
Bread pudding $4.95
Or not. But what if you toss DaZa into the syllabic roux? DaZa: It's a meaningless word with a repeated vowel propelled by both a percussive and a slithering consonant.
Melt my provolone strata
With a DaZa flame
Works better, no? It's called New Orleans soul food "with a dash of Creole," and it's every bit of that. And it ain't pretty, at least not to the eye. But the potting soil from which DaZa sprouted isn't pretty either. You can read it on the chest of the waitress: "Not victims, survivors, Hurricane Katrina 2005." DaZa is a cultural castaway, driven from one metropolis to another by a violent whirl of wind.
Owner David Patin and his family had just opened their restaurant at the onset of summer 2005. It was called The Way Café, and it was an adjunct of The Way Jesus Christ Christian Church, where Patin's father preached. But like a vindictive spinster, Katrina unraveled The Way. The Patins, along with some 30 congregants, fled New Orleans before massive power and water outages could choke off more than just a church and its sideline café. They re-established the church in the Holiday Inn Select on Central Expressway. They re-established the café last December in Deep Ellum. Still, some of the church flavor remains. DaZa hosts a gospel brunch on Sundays.
Is it inspired? Many of the dishes are. Gumbo. You may never come across such a tightly focused gumbo. There's nothing extraneous in it. Everything merges and zeros in on a singular gumbo commitment. The roux, dark and rich, is smooth with a tawdry spice kick to arouse the finish. Tender shrimp rest in the thick of it. Thin slices of spicy sausage, cooked so that the edges cup like blossoms, are juicy. Firm and separate grains of rice cover the dark roux like frail tufts of snow. DaZa gumbo hums.
So do the red beans and rice: a flawless ensemble with firm beans in a zesty smooth bean runoff. Legend has it that trumpeter Louis Armstrong so loved this dish that he signed his personal letters "red beans and ricely yours." There's a painting of Armstrong on the back wall. The puffy-cheeked smile of the hot trumpeter is next to a brooding portrait of cool trumpeter Miles Davis with a full moon floating in the dusky firmament just off his left temple. Next to Davis is an elegant mug of Billie Holiday, her red lips dominating the fog of amber and beige.
Below these portraits is a black-and-white photograph of the young artist: Kenneth Scott. Scott is dressed in a suit, staring off in the distance to his left with a look of detachment, a freshly lit cigar between his fingers. Scott was born in the Desire/Florida section of New Orleans' 9th Ward, one of the most wretched and dangerous neighborhoods in the city. To escape, Scott took to painting, and other than ambers, his work is rich in husky browns with prominent cold blues emerging only in the shadows of the Davis grimace.
DaZa took shape in the remnants of what was once Dodie's Gulf Coast restaurant. The name is a fusing of clipped syllables from Patin's and his sister Zahn's first names. The dining room is as Spartan as those fragments: concrete floor, simple wood tables with numbers taped in one corner surrounded by black and blond chairs. An errant sheet of plywood is propped up near the front. Glass racks are stacked high just behind the lunch counter, which holds an array of desserts and a placard advertising Cajun-fried turkeys for 40 bucks. Two curvaceous counters jut out like a pair of pincers into the center of the dining room. They hold recessed pans cradling magnolia leaves and blooms that drape around the pan edges like floppy ears. Tall plastic light boxes rise from the aft of the counters.
The Spartan demeanor imbues the beverage offerings. DaZa doesn't serve alcohol. They don't even allow it to be smuggled in. "It's because of their faith," says our waitress. Yet much of this cuisine cries for brisk beer bubbles instead of the root beer or sweet iced tea that DaZa plies.
DaZa's cuisine is robust and effective, obliterating hunger in ways few cuisines can outside of a dripping porterhouse. The seafood platter burgeons with plump, juicy fried oysters, tight fried shrimp coils and tender planks of fried catfish over a thick blanket of fries. The plate is dusted with dried parsley. Each piece is greaseless, though the well-seasoned shrimp were dry and tough. The odd thing is that no dippers were tethered to this heap. They had to be requested, and they arrived promptly in plastic ramekins marked "T" and "C"--tartar and cocktail.
Almost a full wall in the DaZa dining room is devoted to an expansive mural map of the Gulf Coast, titled The Great Dispersion. New Orleans, Houston, Mobile, Atlanta, Dallas and Florida are explicitly depicted. Icons dot the cartography: a Saints helmet, the Superdome, an alligator skirmishing over the Florida finger.
But other than that, the dining room is spare, just like the menu. DaZa served breakfast for a time: eggs and bacon, grits, pancakes and breakfast po-boys. But the meal was scuttled.
Yet toast is dispensed with virtually everything as far as we could tell, with varying success. Sometimes the stuff is cold, flaccid and listless, as if it had been toasted, buttered and left to ferment. At other times it was striped with grill marks and was hot and crisp and freshly buttered.
Fried chicken wings and drums are crisp, greaseless, relatively moist and well-herbed. Jambalaya, rice and shrimp covered with a tomato sauce, is pasty and dry, riddled with the same tough shrimp that were strewn across the seafood platter.
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On a follow-up lunch excursion, we discovered a DaZa trial balloon that had not yet made it onto the menu: muffuletta. Originally created in 1906 at the Central Grocery in New Orleans, the muffuletta is a hero-style sandwich of Sicilian stock, considered one of the great sandwiches of all time. It's constructed on a near pizza-sized circular loaf of crusty Sicilian bread that is split and layered with thick strata of sliced provolone cheese, salami, mortadella and ham with a layer of tapenade-like olive salad (garlic, peppers, onion, etc.) clinging to the underside of the top slice of bread.
At DaZa, pastrami and pepperoni are layered in, and the sandwich is served as a huge half-moon (quarters can also be had). The sandwich is served cold, but I had the kitchen heat it until the thick vein of provolone melted into a hearty goo, clinging to the bread and the bottom layer of ham. It's spicy and filling.
Still if that doesn't fill you up, you can load up the gullet with bread pudding, easily among the best versions you'll find in Dallas. Instead of an odious knot of sticky vague cast-off dough, this is supple and moist with discernible layers.
Yet DaZa's is equally splintered between resounding successes and disappointing failures. So it requires navigational work. But if you stick with certain syllables--red beans and rice, gumbo, bread pudding, muffuletta--you may discover poetry. Or even God. 2931 Commerce St., 214-744-3292. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday and 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday. Gospel brunch served noon-5 p.m. Sunday. $-$$