Mardi Gras on Madison (Review)

New Orleans to Go food truck opens an authentic Creole café in East Walnut Hills

Feb 4, 2015 at 2:03 pm
click to enlarge BBQ Oysters
BBQ Oysters


n January, Latoya “Toya” Foster of New Orleans to Go food truck fame opened a brick-and-mortar version of her Cajun/Creole vittles called Mardi Gras on Madison in East Walnut Hills. But this isn’t her and husband/co-owner Randy’s first foray into having a stand-alone spot — between 2006 and 2009 they operated a storefront in Springdale, but the exorbitant overhead costs and the recession forced them to close and start the food truck.

“I missed being able to listen to the music, and if I saw a customer who wasn’t suspecting, I’d pull them on floor and start dancing. I can’t do that on the truck,” Foster says. “I wanted to have a place where they could come and sit down.”

Foster doesn’t like the word “restaurant” and wants her customers to think of Mardi Gras on Madison as a home. “We don’t have any rules,” she says. “If there’s something [you want that] you don’t see on the menu for that day, just ask. If we have the ingredients we’ll do it, if you don’t mind waiting.”

The homespun food and Foster’s down-home demeanor is what separates Mardi Gras on Madison from not only other Cajun-themed restaurants in the city, but also the way so many restaurants are traditionally run. First, there is no set menu. Foster decides on at least five different dishes to serve when she wakes up and then posts them on social media. (A menu from last week featured barbecue chicken tacos, catfish tacos, black beans and rice, fried okra and shrimp po’ boys.) She has tried planning menus in advance, but it doesn’t work for her. Inside the storefront, the menu is posted on a chalkboard, and when something sells out (this happens a lot), it’s marked off. Their food license doesn’t allow them to reserve food for the next day, which helps eliminate waste; food is served until closing time or until it’s gone, whichever happens first.

“I like that we don’t have anything to throw away here,” Foster says. “I like to keep it fresh. I don’t have a heat lamp and I tell people your food’s cooked to order. If you have a little wait, then appreciate it.”

A New Orleans native, Foster moved to Cincinnati as a child with her family, but she’s never forgotten her roots. She has the seafood flown in from a supplier in NOLA, and she travels there frequently to buy spices.

After Hurricane Katrina, some of her family moved up here and were frustrated there weren’t any good po’ boys in the city. Having never been a cook, Foster rallied her family and opened up New Orleans to Go to fill that Cajun void.

“I started from just a dream — The Princess and the Frog story is me,” she says. “I just stepped out on faith and did it.”

Mardi Gras on Madison seats about 70 people at round tables designated for larger parties or at the bar, which shakes up specialty cocktails such as a Bloody Michael, named after Foster’s dad’s middle name, made with king cake vodka and served with an okra garnish, and a Jazzerac, their take on a Sazerac, which is the official cocktail of NOLA. They also have various Abita craft beers, another Louisiana staple, and a Katrina hurricane (orange juice, rum and pineapple juice). They call it a hurricane for a reason, and if you’re looking to get pickled, drinking more than one of these will knock you on your ass.

New Orleans’ heritage is scattered all over the butterscotch-colored walls: fleur-de-lis emblems (the symbol of New Orleans’ French heritage as well as Katrina recovery) are affixed to the walls, along with Mardi Gras beads, Saints football memorabilia, signs like “There’s nothing a po’ boy can’t fix,” and the official colors of Mardi Gras — green, gold and purple — are spray painted on faux brick facades.

There’s something inherently authentic about Foster’s food, which is probably because each dish is crafted with affection. Étouffée wasn’t on the menu the day I dined there, but Foster cooked me a special étouffée dish made with spinach, mushrooms, cayenne pepper, a roux (a thickening sauce made with flour and butter or oil) and crawfish, and it was delicious. She likes to mix up the po’ boy sandwiches and one day will offer a stick-to-your-bones cochon made with pulled pork, but another day it’ll be chicken or shrimp or catfish. She likes to get creative and says she once combined étouffée into a po’ boy sandwich. “I just call myself a po’ boy artist,” she says. She’s also thought about putting shrimp and grits into a waffle cone.

On actual Mardi Gras (Feb. 17), Foster is planning a party that might involve a crawfish boil, a live band and traditional king cake. Knowing Foster, there most certainly will be good food, dancing and bon temps.

Mardi Gras on Madison

Go: 1524 Madison Road, East Walnut Hills;
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. first and third Sunday of the month.