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By Orrin Konheim
Neither Carlos Arana nor Jose Blanco had tried Louisiana cuisine when they first set foot in Peter Finkhauser’s Louisiana-themed restaurants looking for work.
“When I came here, I didn’t have in mind being a chef. I just came to find work in anything,” said Blanco, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1976.
Blanco and Arana found themselves under the wing of German chef Peter Finkhauser. Arana found work as a busboy while Blanco was an assistant chef.
Since Finkhauser died in 2008, the two have proudly carried on his tradition. Arana is the general manager of Louisiana Kitchen and Bayou Bar with Blanco acting as head chef.
The restaurant (4907 Cordell Avenue) was the third iteration of Finkhauser’s original New Orleans Emporium, which was also known as Louisiana Express Company and from 1988-2008 was on Bethesda Avenue.
“I wouldn’t trade this menu for another one,” said Arana. “I like the cuisine and the dishes and the people that bring the culture from Louisiana. I like the music too.”
Most important, Arana has been able to keep the customers who built up loyalty to the Bethesda Avenue location.
“We were pretty upset when they closed that location,” said Germantown resident Ofelia Devereaux, a regular at the restaurant’s weekend brunch,” and delighted when we found out that they opened here since.”
The cafe au lait is the only item that’s imported from Louisiana, but great care is taken to find many of the ingredients. The seafood is shipped mostly from the Eastern Shore and Baltimore and ideal temperatures must be maintained along the way — a process that Arana cites among his biggest challenges.
Beyond that, the food’s authenticity is simply a result of a strong mentor-protege relationship. Finkhauser personally instructed everyone in his kitchens and gave his blessing to Arana and Blanco to replicate his menu when he transferred ownership.
“He was a good teacher with a lot of patience and he would show you first-hand the way it is,” Arana said.
The restaurant’s late benefactor had previously worked and owned upscale restaurants in New York and in Logan Circle before deciding to open something a bit more low-key. According to Blanco, Finkhauser regularly went down to New Orleans to study the city’s cuisine in an attempt to bring authenticity to the Bethesda eatery.
Blanco said Finkhauser’s Louisiana-themed concept was not the fine dining destination the landlord originally had in mind.
“He was tired of fancy restaurants,” Blanco said. “He wanted to do something different. He came up with the idea of this kind of food that was more family-style.”
Blanco and Arana said honoring Finkhauser’s vision is most important to them — something that can be gauged by the amount of longtime customers.
“I love the food. I’m not an afficianado of Creole food, but I just like the people here,” said Bethesda resident Sean Coakley.
The restaurant’s hours (it opens at 7:30 a.m.) give it some distinction from the dozens of others around Woodmont Triangle
“We like the spiciness of the food. They can take an ordinary eggs benedict and that’s just far and away much better of a dish than the original,” said Austin Deveraux, another brunch regular.
While Blanco and Arana have retained the loyalty of the Bethesda community, they have their work cut out for them with newcomers who learn that the restaurant isn’t run by people from New Orleans.
“The biggest challenge is to please the small community from New Orleans,” says Arana. ” They do mind, so if they say, ‘If the chef’s not from New Orleans, the food’s not good,’ we just have to show them that we have 26 years in the industry.”
The restaurant serves two different types of Louisiana cuisines: The Creole cuisine popularized by Louisiana’s urban French and Cajun food, which originated in Louisiana’s rural areas.
Perhaps it’s fitting. The restaurant that fuses the best of two cultures together is run by two ambitious immigrants, who learned their trade from a German wanting to add something new to Bethesda’s dining scene.
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