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Where the Fish Has Bite

People who love the spicy flavors of New Orleans are hooked on a South L.A. market that specializes in the Big Easy's cuisine.

April 14, 2006|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Every Friday, Anthony Cosme pours a secret blend of Cajun spices into a vat of boiling water and cooks up a batch of crawfish shipped live from the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes the air inside his New Orleans Fish Market in South Los Angeles gets so thick with spices that it's hard to breathe.

"That cayenne can have you coughing and your nose running," he says, revealing one ingredient. "When we cook them up outside, you can smell the crawfish around the corner."

Customers drawn to the market each week for a taste of the succulent crustaceans take a number at the counter and wait for their takeout orders, along with those seeking the traditional Roman Catholic fish-on-Friday meal.

"Friday pays the payroll," says Nicole Ganier-Cosme, who co-owns the market with her husband, Anthony. "Thank God for Fridays."

And today is Good Friday -- usually one of the biggest paydays of the year at the fish market founded in 1982 by Nicole's father, Bernard Ganier, a retired construction worker from New Orleans.

Not long after he opened the market, Ganier-Cosme predicted that one day she would own it.

"He told me that 'I didn't pay for you to go to college to own a fish store,' " she recalls her father saying. But she didn't want to face the prospect of losing a family business she'd grown up with.

The market, at Vernon and Arlington avenues near Leimert Park, is one of a handful of stores in Los Angeles that have kept direct ties to their New Orleans and other Southern roots.

Each week, the market has its crawfish, oysters, blue crabs and smoked sausage flown in directly from the Gulf. The shelves are stocked with cans of okra, bags of red beans and spices used to prepare such traditional regional dishes as chicken jambalaya and crawfish etouffee. And on the counter are big round barrel jars full of pickled pig lips and pig feet.

Nicole and Anthony assumed ownership of the market in August shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, knocking out many of their suppliers. Even when shipments resumed, there were questions about whether the products were safe to eat. They lost business.

"We weren't certain what we were going to do," Ganier-Cosme says.

Gradually, many of their customers returned -- some just to get a taste of the city they had left long ago; others, evacuees from the storm, seeking the comfort of flavors still fresh in their memories.

Their recollections, both recent and distant, often play out in the takeout line. Food has a way of connecting people to places: the Brooklyn-born bank executive who drops in for crawfish -- the third time in three weeks -- and recalls a trip to Mardi Gras with his wife in 1983. The 89-year-old retired nurse who stops by for catfish and tells the tale of her sister's death in a 1940 fire in Natchez, Miss., that claimed nearly 200 lives. The 27-year-old construction worker who picks up blue crabs to add to his mother's gumbo.

"I grew up on the taste," said Eleanor Gaither, a retired county worker waiting on a recent Friday for red snapper, sweet potato pies and red beans. "There were family fish gatherings. It was a different atmosphere. You didn't have to worry about gang warfare."

Flipping the shell off a freshly cooked crawfish, longtime L.A. resident Claudette Caire declared to her brother-in-law (and anyone else who would listen): "These are good!"

Lionel D. Caire, a 61-year-old Katrina evacuee, was more taken by the stuffed crabs. He hadn't seen one since before he escaped his flooded one-bedroom apartment. He found his way to a bridge on Interstate 10 and hitchhiked to Baton Rouge, La., where he slept on a chair in his sister's house before flying to Los Angeles.

A tasty stuffed crab offered some comfort from the constant worries about his still-missing grandson and his lack of proper identity papers 6 1/2 months after the storm.

"I feel like a John Doe," he said, adding that the stuffed crab "reminds me of home. I ain't had this since I got here."

There's something special about seafood caught in the Gulf, the customers said.

"Louisiana oysters and the shrimp are the best," said Peter Braud, an electrician and retired maintenance director for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"It's the taste," said Arthur Joachim, 38, owner of Jefferson Seafood Shack, a Jefferson, La., business that supplies the market with its crawfish. "The taste comes from the water, the water out of Lake Pontchartrain. It gives it a distinctive taste."

But for some it's not just the type of food that's special; it's the way the food is prepared that is the art.

Monrow Mabon, an attorney, said he drives from his home in Riverside to get oysters from the Gulf.

"When I'm here and I'm in need of down-home food, that is the place for me to go," said Mabon, a native of Baton Rouge. "It's the authentic cuisine that I like."

Mabon compares the food, most of which is priced at less than $10, to music.

"Food from Louisiana is like jazz. It is American-born but celebrated around the world," he said. "I would say that Louisiana food and jazz are the only true American cultural art forms. The cooking is a culinary art -- oysters, alligator, gumbo -- and there is nothing like it. It's even better than French cuisine."

As for the ingredients that help make the New Orleans taste at this South L.A. market, that's a secret.

What do you put in the seasoning? Cosme is asked as he dumps a load of freshly boiled and seasoned crawfish into a display tub.

"They don't give out the ingredients," the cook replies.

Then he relents: "I'll give you one ingredient: hot water."

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