Truth Is Relative
Using family recipes, Brian Wheeler delivers real N’Awlins cooking at Tibby’s.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the story behind a food icon is fact or fiction.
Wendy (of Wendy’s hamburgers), is the actual daughter of founder Dave Thomas. Little Debbie is fictional, as are the Einstein bagel-making Brothers. Aunt Jemima is based on a real woman named Nancy Green. The “Chico” character wandering downtown Orlando’s streets publicizing Chico’s Dirty Tacos is made up, but KFC’s Colonel Sanders was alarmingly real; I met him once, and once was enough.
Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen, the Cajun-influenced restaurant venture from Brian Wheeler, founder of the Tijuana Flats chain, has a backstory based on Walter “Tibby” Tabony. A New Orleans native with a big appetite for food and life, Tibby lived in the Lower Ninth Ward and survived Hurricane Katrina, although his house didn’t. I’m happy to say that the story is real: Tibby, who passed three years ago at age 93, was Wheeler’s great-uncle. The family and their recipes have inspired the restaurant, and if it’s possible to imbue sincerity into any business, Wheeler manages it here.
Tibby’s is the kind of place you might find near the French Quarter, like a neighborhood restaurant in the Marigny or Mid-City that came into a little money and got gussied up for any tourists who might happen by. The walls are decorated with music posters, Mardi Gras float decorations, art made from bead strings, even a big red and white sign from Central Grocery, famous as the home of the muffuletta sandwich. Wheeler was born in the Crescent City and still returns to ride with a “krewe’’ during Mardi Gras. “I didn’t want a hokey theme restaurant,” he says. “Everything we have is as authentic as possible. We get lots of local people who are from New Orleans; they’d tell us if we got it wrong.”
Tibby’s opened in Winter Park’s Aloma Shopping Center last March, just in time for Mardi Gras, and while there are some concessions on the menu to folks not used to crawfish and hot sauce, the po-boys, gumbos and jambalayas pretty much hit the mark. Wheeler has all his breads made locally from New Orleans recipes, giving the po-boy sandwiches ($8-$13) a nice crunchy crust and soft interior to soak up the juicy fillings. Plump oysters are batter-fried and served a dozen to a roll, dressed in tangy house-made remoulade. Shrimp, blackened chicken, crawfish, catfish and Cajun sausage are also available.
Speaking of sausage, vegetarians should peruse the menu carefully, as andouille appears in almost everything; cheddar grits, rice, and potato salad. Even the steak has sausage. The jambalaya ($4.50 cup, $8 bowl) is so chock full of garlicky, slightly spicy sausage and sauce that there’s barely room for the rice. This is not a negative comment. Add some very traditional favorites and it becomes the jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo combination ($12) famous in song and story. The pie is sautéed crawfish and vegetables wrapped in a flaky fried pastry and I would drive to Tibby’s just for it. The chicken and andouille gumbo is a slow-simmered stew thickened and flavored by a dark roux and filé, a spicy powder made from sassafras leaves. This plate brings me right back to late nights on Frenchman Street.
The shrimp or crawfish étouffée ($12.50) isn’t quite as memorable. The roux is light to the point of being invisible, and does nothing for the chunky crustaceans. Skip it and order a muffuletta sandwich ($9 half, $16 whole) and make sure you bring friends. This enormous construction harkens to the Italian influences of New Orleans, with layers of Genoa and hard salami, sweet ham, provolone and mozzarella cheeses slathered with rich olive salad direct from Gambino’s in Metairie, La. Finish the meal with an order of deep fried sugar-dusted beignets ($2.75 for 3) and life is good.
Wheeler says it’s too early to think about making Tibby’s a chain, so for now this location is the one and only. There’s live jazz on Sunday afternoons, and a funky, brassy N’Awlins’ mixture playing in the background otherwise—ideal musical flavoring to go along with some big bayou tastes.
Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen
2203 Aloma Ave., Winter Park
The dish that shouts New Orleans is seafood gumbo ($9.75 a bowl), toothy shrimp, firm oysters, okra and the ever-present andouille, in a dark sauce that speaks of generations of down-home cooking.
Drink ’em, if You Dare
The folks at California-based Vampire Vineyards are determined to change your view of Halloween with these decidedly adult treats:
Vampyre Red, an 80 proof wheat vodka, has a deep ruby color and slightly disturbing viscosity. Enough of these and you won’t be able to see yourself in the mirror. $23
Witches’ Brew is an unfiltered high-alcohol blond ale, getting its distinctive flavor from cask conditioning, not unlike certain “children of the night.” $12.99
Trueblood Pinot Noir, hand-picked at a tiny California vineyard, has enough blackberry, plum and dark cherry flavors to wake the dead. $29.95
All three concoctions are available locally at The Fresh Market and Total Wine. For more information, go to—you guessed it—vampire.com