Apr 16, 2015

A commoner dines at Paul’s Café, Ponchatoula, La.

It’s a relatively easy and simple 12- to 13-hour drive from Springfield, Ill., to New Orleans, one which I make to begin most road trips to the big Easy. However, by the time I reach the Louisiana state line, I’m often ready to get off the beaten path and explore my old stomping grounds.  So, on my most recent road trip to New Orleans with The April, we chose to get off the interstate at Ponchatoula, La., in search of lunch … and perhaps an adult beverage.  We found very satisfying results for both at Paul’s Café

I’ve always been a little biased in favor of Ponchatoula, which is one of my favorite small towns in Louisiana.  As you head south on I-55, it’s the last town before you hit the bayou.  Located on near the north shore of both Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, it’s surrounded by rich farmland and benefits from a warm climate that is apparently ideal for growing some of the best strawberries in the world. (Coincidentally, they also use Louisiana strawberry juice to make Abita’s Strawberry Harvest Lager.) 

So, Ponchatoula has legitimacy to call itself the “Strawberry Capital of the World.”  They also have an annual festival to prove it.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to attend.  It seems like quite the blog-worthy adventure to me.  

In addition to the world-famous strawberries, many people flock to Ponchatoula for the many antique stores, art galleries and curiosity shops contained within its historic downtown.  In my opinion, this has given Ponchatoula a bit of a New Orleans-style bohemian vibe that blends remarkably well with a small town feel and friendly citizens that earned Ponchatoula a second nickname as the “Mayberry of the Deep South.”

Paul’s Café is located in the heart of downtown Ponchatoula, on the corner of Pine and NW Railroad Avenue, right on the tracks and across from the town’s historic depot.  Judging by the crowds and the parking situation, Paul’s is also where everyone in town seems to meet for lunch. 

The Cube looks cozy next to the caboose.

A rusted rail car on NW Railroad Avenue 
We found street parking on Railroad next to the antique rail cars on display. 

The lunch crowd gathers at Paul's Cafe.

Plenty of counter seating available, but not for long ... 
Once we entered Paul’s we were not strangers for long.  We were seated at a table near the counter and server station but away from the entrance and cash register.  It afforded us an excellent view of all the action. 

Paul's Cafe's signature strawberry daiquiri
Admittedly, what first drew us into Paul’s was the notion of a fresh, homemade strawberry daiquiri.  Naturally, when the waitress took our drink orders, that was the first thing she suggested.  It was like she read our minds. 

This may be even better than Hamm's Beer.
It tasted sooo good … almost too good.  The alcohol in the daiquiri is very subtle, so beware when you’re drinking them. 

With a thirst produced by 11 hours of being on the road sufficiently quenched, it was time to study Paul’s lunch menu, which most assuredly features everything you’d expect for Louisiana comfort food – a generous selection of sandwiches and po-boys as well as plate dinners and daily specials.     

The red beans and rice Monday lunch special
Since it was Monday, tradition made my choice easy – the red beans and rice special.  I chose beet salad and green beans as my two sides.  How does this look for less than $9?  Plus, the special included dessert. 

This was simply delicious comfort food at a great price.  The red beans and rice were prepared perfectly.  The sausage, while a little mild for my taste, was an excellent complement.  The cornbread was melt-in-your-mouth moist. 

You won't easily find a better catfish po-boy than this one.
The April, having been momentarily disappointed to learn that Middendorf’s Restaurant in nearby Manchac was not open on Mondays, was still thinking catfish for lunch, so she tried Paul’s catfish po-boy.  If this is any indication of Paul’s po-boys, you probably can’t go wrong with one here.  Per The April, the catfish was excellent – fried crispy and thin and flaky with every bite.  She got it “dressed” and they provided just the right amount of tomato, lettuce and mayo to complement the wonderfully chewy French bread and fish.  (I can attest to this based on the few delicious bites she shared.)

And, to give you an idea of the friendly atmosphere at Paul’s, like almost everyone who had lunch there, we were approached at our table by Paul himself and had a very nice conversation with the owner about where we were from and how we were enjoying our lunch.  You just don’t get that type of hospitality very often anymore. 

We left Paul’s Café both satisfied and hungry for more.  Personally, I can’t wait to return to Ponchatoula to check out more sights and shops.  If you’re ever travelling in the area and you have time to stop, I highly recommend taking the time to explore Ponchatoula and, if you’re there during breakfast or lunch hours, drop by Paul’s Café.  I think you and your stomach will be glad you did.  

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