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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Pot Luck

February 15, 1996|JONATHAN GOLD

On a weekend morning, it's next to impossible to get a table at Kokomo in the Farmers Market, and the coffee-and-doughnuts crowd around Bob's can be all but impenetrable. The Thanksgiving wait for Willie Birds at Puritan Poultry is excruciating enough to make you glad it happens only once a year.

But the longest line in Farmers Market, even longer than that for the first local asparagus at the Lopez corn stand or the queue of Iowa tourists waiting patiently outside for the next tour of movie stars' homes, is the fast-moving line for lunch at the Gumbo Pot, which shoots back from the service counter, curls around the blackened-fish station and extends sometimes almost to the nut counter several dozen yards away.

The Gumbo Pot may not be among the very best Creole-style restaurants in Los Angeles, but anywhere you can punctuate a day at the market with a fried-oyster po'-boy, a bowl of seafood gumbo and a cold Barq's is not to be despised, even if you could find better versions of each of those things--including the root beer, which is somehow more delicious in bottles than it is out of a can--a few miles south of here. A quick Farmers Market lunch may be sort of a milquetoast way to celebrate Mardi Gras next week, but it does have advantages over drinking hurricanes until you turn green.

If you've been to the Gumbo Pot, you know the drill: Stand in line; try to decipher the day's menu from the welter of painted signs, chalkboards and scrawled stuff on cardboard; then try to bark out an order before the guy with the note pad gets bored and passes you over. The next guy takes your drink order: Barq's, basically, though there is also cafe au lait with chicory, which may be true to the New Orleans French Market and everything but tastes a lot like coffee that's spent a little too long on the burner. (There's a pretty good new beer bar on the other side of the seating area, where you can get a pint of Newcastle Brown or Sierra Nevada to go with the food if you'd rather.) And magically, though almost everything is cooked to order and it seems as if the lunch stand has about a third the staff it needs, your food is always ready by the time you manage to fish the money out of your wallet.

There are cold boiled crawfish in season--now, more or less--also shrimp, very fresh, mildly flavored with the peppers and aromatics with which they have been cooked and served with a decent remoulade sauce that seems to be two thirds fresh horseradish by weight. The raw oysters tend to be cold-water oysters like Fanny Bays instead of the neurotoxin-prone warm-water oysters from the polluted gulf, safe and fine.

The catfish po'-boy is a dainty thing, really, belonging less to the maximum-crunch than the lightly fried school, so you actually taste the clean muddiness of the fish before you taste the oil in which it has fried. Like most of the sandwiches here, the catfish po'-boy is served on an untoasted French roll and garnished with enough tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise to populate a small salad bowl, but it is also layered with wafer-thin lemon slices--rind and all--which add a certain bitter piquancy to the sandwich that is not entirely unpleasant: as ladylike a fried-catfish chew as you are likely to encounter.

The fried-oyster po'-boys aren't what you get at 5C's down on 54th Street, but they're fine; the cold blackened chicken po'-boys are gritty with spice; blackened catfish po'-boys--filets coated with spices and cooked over great heat in a skillet--aren't as good as the fried cat po'-boys but will do in a pinch.

Gumbo ya ya here tends to be inoffensive, if also unexciting--a wan soup thickened with okra, heated up a little with peppery chunks of andouille, spiked with bits of chicken, canned tomato and not terribly overcooked shrimp--but if you've ever been to a great New Orleans gumbo spot like Eddie's or even had the murky, dangerous gumbo served on Friday's at Stevie's on the Strip on Crenshaw at Jefferson, you'll probably be a little disappointed.

The seafood gumbo--a little milder, with thin, tough shreds of crab meat instead of the sausage--may be a little better. The watery jambalaya, assembled at the last second from a vat of tomato sauce and a great dollop of rice, is bay-leaf-intensive; sloppy but somehow OK. Any of these improves if you stir in half an ounce of Tabasco sauce, which provides both the bright pepper heat and the splash of acidity that seem to be lacking in these soups.

Fried chicken salad is a queer bird, crisp bits of fried chicken glazed with chile, peppered with bits of candied pecans that make the salad the salad sweet as Count Chocula and served with a wash of sourish ranch dressing and what seems like half a pound of chopped lettuce.

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